Side Effects Review: Even With Some Plausibility Issues, This Thriller Is Triumphantly Twisty

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Steven Soderbergh’s latest project presents both an astute examination of our pill prone society, and an engaging mystery that will surely keep you guessing till the very end.  There are bits of mild confusion that keep the film from truly packing a punch, but its an impressive outing nonetheless.

Working from a script by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), Soderbergh invites us into the world of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara).  Emily is a girl of unfortunate circumstance.  At one time she had everything anyone could ask for: a gorgeous home, a loving spouse named Martin (Channing Tatum), and the luxuries that an upper-class lifestyle can afford.  Then, it all came tumbling down after Martin was arrested for insider trading.

The movie begins when Emily goes to visit him in jail just before his release. She’s remained faithfully in love with him during his entire incarceration, and can’t wait for him to come back home to her.  What should be a happy reunion, though, quickly sours into a dank existence when Emily comes under a great depression.  Realistically showing the effects of depression is a tricky feat to pull off, but Soderbergh expertly shoots many of Emily’s scenes closeup from low angles, so that we’re practically sucked into her inner psyche.  Mara, for her part, does a terrific job of portraying her sadness in a clinical, everyday sense that makes it all the more believable.

Emily’s depression continues to worsen.  So much so, that she even attempts suicide one day by driving her car at full speed straight into a brick wall.  It is in the hospital where she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a kind psychiatrist who wants to give her therapy.  It turns out Emily has been depressed before, but the pills she used to take didn’t do anything to improve her mood.  So Banks prescribes her a new drug called Ablixa, and it does wonders.  The only problem is it causes a strange side effect: sleepwalking.  Emily is afraid to go off the pill because of how much it’s improving her mood, but then during one of her sleepwalking episodes she does something downright awful.

It is here that the movie pivots from it’s fractured slice-of-life view of Emily’s world to a lively, almost Hitchcock-ian brainteaser.  Soderbergh’s direction of the first half is unnervingly quiet, so when the switch happens, it creeps up on you from behind and takes hold.  The main question that the film poses is: if such an atrocity were committed by someone while under the influence of an antidepressant, who is to blame?  Is it Dr. Banks for writing the prescription?  Is it the pharmaceutical company that makes the pill?  Or is it Emily herself?

Even more intriguing are the perplexities Dr. Banks starts to find in his dealings with Emily.  If her initial car crash was indeed a suicide attempt, then why did she purposefully put on her seatbelt?  More questions start to arise as Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherin Zeta-Jones), a therapist from Emily’s past, resurfaces.  Law gives an impassioned performance as a man trying to hold onto his slowly disseminating life.  Jones is equally as good, making Dr. Siebert deliciously sinister as she inserts herself into the story.

Unfortunately, as the movie gains excitement, it starts to lose its profound elements of realism that made it so enticing in the first place.  Some of the motives behind the schemes being hatched don’t add up, and in the scenes where characters confess their endgame it feels a little unbelievable.  Additionally, though Jones does her best with her role, the character of Dr. Siebert is a little too over the top to be taken seriously as a psychiatrist.  Still, she’s a thrill to watch onscreen.

Aside from these discrepancies, the film is immensely entertaining from start to finish. With fine performances from the entire cast and a greatly effective directional style, Side Effects is a gripping tale of obsession, addiction, and greed.  In interviews, Soderbergh has stated that this film will be his last as he plans to retire by 50.  I certainly hope he reconsiders. I would love to see more movies like this added to the director’s already versatile résumé.  Grade: B+

By Mike Papirmeister

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