Side Effects – Film Review

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum

Released: 8 March, 2013

Medicine that turns you into a homicidal killer. That’s the central premise of Steven Soderbergh’s latest feature, in a  nutshell. In this context, it would be fun to see a bunch of doped up civil servants with runny noses and sore throats attacking a small hospital ward, in which the janitor suddenly pulls out a shotgun and reveals he has army training from when he was in Vietnam. His name could be Cobra and he’d sport an eye patch. I admit unashamedly that this is what I was somewhat expecting. However, I also admit (a little grudgingly) that a more intelligent approach would probably be more effective with subject matter such as this.

As the film opens, we are introduced to Emily (Mara), a doe-eyed young woman who is eagerly awaiting her husband, Martin (Tatum), to get out of prison so that they can pick up their marriage where they left off. When he does get out, however, Emily begins to act strangely, prone to emotional outbursts and eventually self harm. She is prescribed a psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Law), who tests her on a variety of anti-depressants. When she eventually settles upon Ablixa, which seems to fully amend her condition, the drug has some unexpected <Insert Movie Title>.

Unsurprisingly for a Steven Soderbergh film, everything on display is beautifully shot and very idiosyncratic. With subtle use of lighting and framework, a sense of constrictive claustrophobia is conveyed in scenes in which Emily is present. The focus shifts occasionally onto a tear, a car dashboard, a name badge. This gives us a feel for the unusual condition which Emily is suffering from, as well as a very powerful sense of immediacy. In realizing a grim reality, Soderbergh makes the dark underbelly of the human condition a captivating peepshow.

It’s an interesting choice of topic, and one that takes pains to raise some serious questions that are relevant to current events. Issues of depression, addiction, and suicide are all broached, but it is the ownership of one’s body, in relation to the medical community, that is of particular interest in this film. Is a patient always entitled to the treatment they receive? To what extent does a ‘cure’ qualify as a cure, when it also harbors such harmful side effects? The fact that Emily is a very slight woman and that the hyper-masculine figure of Channing Tatum is a very assertive and controlling figure in these decisions also raises some feminist arguments. There is a general mistrust of the medical community in prescribing treatment that is also conveyed here, which is a constant issue with experimental medicine.

Mara is an ideal candidate for the role such as this, her bright-eyed innocence a perfect tool to reshape into the emotionally stricken victim. She has many scenes which demand raw emotion and she delivers this adequately, supplying the audience with a kicked-puppy type entity with which to sympathize with. Her strife is not so much that she has to deal with depression but rather she is forced to repress it in order to provide for Martin, who won’t be able to secure a reliable job for some time. She has moments where she attempts to reject her condition, admirably but weakly, and these scenes are especially impressive.

Hers is the standout performance, while the other players play to type. Not badly, by any means, but never in such a manner that makes the audience say “Blimey, he plays a psychiatrist uncannily”. On that note, Jude Law does a fine job with the role he’s given, playing a typical psychiatrist is a very canny manner. He offers the sympathetic shoulder for Emily to cry on when she needs it most and his character is given a great deal of focus in the second half. As this is more story driven than anything else, the fact that he is able to keep the slightly convoluted plot rolling at a nice and steady pace is a credit to his abilities.

And if there is a complaint to be made about Side Effects, it’s that, while the story crosses the finish line admirably in one piece, it occasionally stumbles on some unnecessarily convoluted plot details. There is a strong sense that the audience is being deliberately disoriented in order to make the ensuing plot revelations more satisfying. Emily’s former psychiatrist, a slightly bland Catherine Zeta Jones with a few quirky attributes taped onto her character, has a tendency to show up, throw some names and medical terms around to get everyone’s head into a spin, and then dashes away until such time that the plot once again becomes coherent. This gives her a bizarre I Dream of Jeannie mystique.

Still, this occasional confusion is only a minor hindrance, a drop of oil in the otherwise clear waters of a satisfying shocker story. It had potential to be sharp-as-nails excellent, but the plot falls into somewhat familiar territory as it draws to a close. Not necessarily lacking in originality, but not exactly overwhelmed by it either. It still packs a solid punch, aided nicely by the often haunting imagery, soundtrack and overall atmosphere. A damn good thriller, through and through.

Score: 4/5

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