Synopsis: A young woman’s world unravels when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects. (Source)
So here we are, at the supposed end of Steven Soderbergh’s directorial phase, and how does he choose to end it? Why with a devilishly good time of course. Teaming up again with Contagion/The Informant! screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, the pair have created a film in which nothing is ever quite as it seems. Navigating through a labyrinthian plot which only uses it’s pharmaceutical scandal as a backdrop to showcase the self-destructive darkness of human nature, the film is entrancing from the first second till the last. A feat, considering that while there isn’t too much depth in hindsight, this is first-and-foremost a seedy adult thriller that never fails to have your mind reeling thanks to an ensemble of nuanced performances, tightly-wound suspense and all of the intelligent minutiae that we’ve come to expect from Soderbergh’s accomplished direction. In all honesty, Side Effects is really the type of film I’d rather advise people to go out and see right away without any foresight. For those of you still here however, I’ll try and stay as vague as I can.
The story begins with a young woman named Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) as she prepares to welcome her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) back from a prison stint due to insider trading. Having a hard time readjusting to their second chance at life together, Emily quickly suffers a failed suicide attempt which leads her to a psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). After still failing to recover despite a plethora of antidepressants, Jonathan offers Emily a brand new drug named Ablixa. This is where things take a turn for the worse, and a shocking event spirals both Emily and Jonathan’s lives out of control. Lust, murder, greed and vengeance soon take hold, and both parties will stop at nothing to take back control of their lives.
Perhaps the best part of the film is the way that it feels like one long magic trick. Soderbergh pulls a long con on us from the very start, planting clues in every frame, sob story and action which all culminate in one deliciously perverse climax. Just like it’s characters, the story makes you truly believe in everything that’s happening only to suddenly pull the rug out from underneath us at the most unsuspecting time. Naturally, with a plot that relies so heavily on twists, it’s one that’s quite difficult to discuss while trying to keep most of the surprise intact. It’s worth noting however, that the story does plays out like a Hitchcock film, grounded in uncontrollable human greed albeit this time without the humor — trust me it’s still fun that way, just much darker and more fiendish in the end. In addition, each act is constantly changing the game, making it near-impossible to guess how it’s all going to end. At times, the only thing we can be sure of, is that we’re seeing an escalating train-wreck that’s impossible to look away from or enjoy. It also doesn’t hurt that Soderbergh’s trademark cinematography (under the guise Peter Andrews) is haunting and dreamlike, diffusing light and utilizing shadow as if everything is a bad nightmare.
Character-wise, the film is a chess game of sorts between it’s main players in which unwitting pawns are used against their will until they choose to fight back. Rooney Mara’s Emily is the focus of the first half of the film, and despite always being depressed, suicidal or drugged up, Mara is always fascinating to watch due to her charisma and seemingly genuine attitude toward things at the start. She’s good at playing the victim, and there’s a dynamic range which emerges in the film’s latter half. The second half of the film focuses on Jude Law’s psychiatrist Banks. As an unwitting pawn swept up in something he doesn’t understand, we feel for him throughout, as he watches the comfortable life he’s lead slowly disintegrate. Both of these characters pivot off of one another in unexpected ways and there are some interesting role reversals which come out of nowhere. Catherine Zeta-Jones as a fellow psychiatrist and Channing Tatum as Mara’s husband Martin both have their roles to play but I’d rather not spoil their pieces of the puzzle. All I’ll say is that it’s nice to see them given parts that someone play against their public perception.
Ultimately Side Effects is more about the collateral damage and destructive nature of human nature than it is about any misdiagnosed bitter pill, and that’s what makes it fresh, diabolical and delightful. Sure, it’s sorta trashy, but it’s all too fun to ignore. While it won’t be looked at as the ultimate Soderbergh film, it’s a fun, unexpected excursion for a director whose mastered every genre throughout his prolific career. Here’s hoping it’s not really the end.
Crome Rating: 4/5