Mark Reviews Movies

Side Effects (2013)


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw, Ann Dowd

MPAA Rating: R (for sexuality, nudity, violence and language)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 2/8/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 8, 2013

Scott Z. Burns' screenplay for Side Effects is an expertly crafted game of dishonesty, betrayal, and manipulation that turns the tables on its characters with such dexterity that we barely perceive it happening until the consequences fully reveal themselves. In turn, the film does the same to us, and director Steven Soderbergh's early empathy for the array of characters within the film leaves us completely disoriented as we come to realize how completely we have been fooled and how willing we have been to be fooled.

The initial premise of the film is intriguing in its own right, as Burns and Soderbergh give us a subjective examination of a woman's collapse into depression and the lengths to which she will go to obtain something approaching normalcy. The answer seems as simple and uncomplicated as the film's first act, which watches as our preliminary protagonist survives an "accident" involving a speeding car and a cement wall and begins a regimen of prescription psychoactive drugs. It's a long, grueling process full of slow results, shattering relapses, and side effects that could result in more harm than good.

We know even before the film proper starts that there will be ramifications. The first set of shots slowly move from an overhead view of a busy New York streetscape to a specific window of an apartment complex and, from there, surveys the scene inside that residence. The floor is a bloody mess with no signs of life but plenty of signs of death.

Three months earlier, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a woman in her late 20s, is living alone in the city. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is in prison for insider trading—soon to be released after a four-year sentence. She works at an advertising agency under a boss (Polly Draper) who is remarkably understanding, and her mother-in-law (Ann Dowd) gives her an understated pep talk on the way to the prison on the day Martin is set to be released. Emily has survived these four years on the kindness of strangers and familiars alike. There aren't too many, though; as she tells her boss, insider trading, in the financial culture into which she's been thrust through marriage, might as well be murder.

She seems excited and anxious about her husband's return to the world, but during their first sexual encounter upon his return home, the camera takes her point of view—staring vacantly at the ceiling. When it cuts to her face, her visage is empty and emotionless. Everything else, we gather, has been what one character dubs a "brave face."

Exhausted, confused, and struggling to feel any kind of emotion, Emily goes to the garage of the building. She drops her purse in the effort to get her keys, gets in her car, and crashes it straight into the wall ahead of her.

From here on, Burns' screenplay takes on two perspectives with diminishing equality as the film progresses. The second protagonist is Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist whose first act in the film is calming a man who's been arrested and explaining to the arresting officer that the man is only suffering from grief. Banks is a man of optimism and compassion. When asked why he moved from his native England to practice in the United States, he explains the cultural difference in the outlook of treatment: Across the pond, the assumption is that a psychiatric patient is sick; in the States, the assumption is that the patient is getting better. It's a philosophy that sums up his character quite succinctly.

Banks is the psychiatrist on call when Emily arrives battered and bruised after her "accident." Banks is calm and rational trying to get information from his patient; she is defensive and eager to return home. After all, she cannot let her husband down now when he needs her support. Banks agrees to release her as long as they have regular appointments. He prescribes her some medication, and while trying to find the right combination of pills, which includes a new drug on the market, things get out of hand.

Early on, Burns seems to be engaging in an explicit, reactionary critique of the pharmacological industry and the prevalence of psychiatric medication—playing upon the fears of a hypothetical worst-case scenario (Just after the film's fatal turning point, the camera moves to a close-up of a pill bottle). Scenes that seem cynical—such as Banks being wined and dined by a company rep to convince his patients to participate in a study for a new medication or Emily's previous psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) selling Banks on the idea of prescribing Emily a specific drug—have more traditional, plot-driven payoffs.

Nonetheless, the debate is present here, as well as discussions about the blurring of professional ethics with personal biases (Would Banks have treated Emily differently if she had been a man?) and the aftereffects of a media firestorm that places suspicion upon medical practitioners and their practices (Patients begin to question or to refuse to take their medication). The talk primarily serves to bolster and, in a way, distract from the principal mystery, which poses a scenario in which a person could have committed a crime and yet not be guilty of it. Then again, even that's a bit of deflection on Burns' part.

The film's central puzzle relies entirely on characters' clandestine motivations, and even Banks, who becomes our guide, is never quite reliable as a detective, let alone a pure protagonist. Beyond the question of his treatment of Emily, there are accusations of misconduct in his past and the possibility that he may have simply overworked himself in attempting to provide for his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and her son. Law's sympathetic performance is key to maintaining a sense of humanity to the constant revelations, especially as his character seems to be entertaining an unhealthy paranoia and, later, engages in some underhanded deceptions of his own.

Everything leads to a series of mind games, in which characters constantly lie to each other, attack others at their most vulnerable weak points, and take advantage of circumstances. Side Effects moves in unexpected and vindictive ways, and there's a devious sort of joy to watch people this clever and with nothing to lose turn on each other.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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