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Side Effects

Reviewed by Adam Gallimore.

Director Steven Soderbergh
Length 106 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Trailer

Suffering from depression after her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison, Emily (Rooney Mara) is assigned to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Emily is prescribed a series of anti-depressants, none of which prove effective. Seeking advice from her previous consultant, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr. Banks agrees to put Emily on an experimental course of treatment involving a new drug, Ablixa. But, as the film’s title suggests, this medication has a series of adverse consequences that impact on the lives of each of those involved.

From the outset, Side Effects has a great deal in common with Steven Soderbergh’s recent continent-spanning disaster movie Contagion (2011), similarly intriguing and terrifying in equal measure. Running through the film are themes concerning the commodification of the pharmaceutical industry and an overmedicated America, with drugs marketed and prescribed as immediate solutions to all manner of personal and psychological problems; modern psychiatric practice is portrayed as being motivated by financial incentives rather than improving patient wellbeing. But the film uses these cultural discourses to criticise manipulative forms themselves - drugs, advertising, cinema - and the unearthing of these beneath-the-surface details allows the film to rise above its genre trappings, succeeding as an incisive piece of criticism rather than superficial social commentary.

This is one of those films that is hard to discuss or evaluate without revealing too much, such is the intelligence of Scott Z. Burns’ script. What I can disclose is that the film is an astute exercise in genre, blending psychological thriller, murder mystery, neo-noir and human drama in a seamless yet complex manner. Side Effects screams understatement, from Soderbergh’s subtle direction to Thomas Newman’s moody, ambient score. The film’s style is somewhat distancing in its pronounced objectivity, thereby placing its Machiavellian characters front and centre. With Soderbergh (also acting as cinematographer) shooting once more on digital, the film’s imagery is sharp and powerful, communicating with great clarity the plight of its characters and amplifying its impartial standpoint.

This reserved style also anchors the film in a realism that crucially never allows events to seem too preposterous. Soderbergh refuses to manipulate his audience with narrative or emotional cues, revealing events in such a nonchalant, matter-of-fact fashion as to interrogate, subvert, and undermine genre expectations. It is successful at both fulfilling and criticising genre largely because it does not settle within one category but shifts unexpectedly and fluidly between several. Unlike the recent Stoker (2013), a film that wears its Hitchcockian homages on its sleeve, Side Effects is more subtle in its debt to the auteur in ways that are better experienced than described. In contrast to the classicism of its plotting, the film’s denouement seems alternately bold and bonkers, though it is the delivery - with sincerity rather than histrionics - that makes it believable.

In terms of the performances, Rooney Mara displays a palpable fragility that interestingly offsets her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo persona; "Structure really helps with hopelessness," she pleads, desperate to deal with her condition as her life begins to unravel. But it is Law who really stands out, increasingly insidious and obsessive as he becomes implicated in an inward spiral of scandal and subterfuge, delivering his first truly convincing lead performance in years. Zeta-Jones also overcomes her limited screen time to exude an enjoyable maleficence.

More accessible than Soderbergh’s other recent genre reworkings, such as his two-part biopic Che (2008) and arthouse action film Haywire (2012), Side Effects is also a challenging and highly efficient thriller. Rather than lamenting the loss of a great filmmaker - if this is to be Soderbergh’s last film, as he claims - it seems more appropriate to consider the strength of this film alone, and how it incisively navigates conceptions of both genre and spectatorship.

Read Adam Gallimore & Matt Denny's article on the value of unpleasantness in Side Effects and Trance here

This review was published on March 13, 2013.

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