[Beware, I am going to enter into some spoilers for this review. I won’t spoil the plot except to undermine some expectation, which, for a thriller, might be as bad or worse than actually revealing the plot.] I’m surprised by how conventional Side Effects (2013) turned out to be. I watched patiently for the plot to reveal itself and, when it did, then waited for its cynicism to reveal itself. [Spoiler] It did not. Steven Soderbergh has a reputation for off-kilter films but, upon examining his list of credits, shows a very strong conventionality. I would describe him as someone who brings a fresh eye to orthodox fare. The same is true of Side Effects. While it is a psychological film, I wouldn’t call it a thriller. Unless, of course, a thriller can be a movie where one’s fears of what comes next far exceed the result. However, this may be a side effect of my watching truly disturbing and disgusting films and losing any sense of normality I might have once entertained.
Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is just being released from prison after an insider trading conviction. He’s been in prison for four years and his wife, Emily (Rooney Mara), has been waiting dutifully for all of that time. She’s suffered depression in the past and it looks like it’s gotten much worse. After one bad event, she begins treatment with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He puts her through a few courses of antidepressants until he puts her on something called Ablixa (something she’d heard about from a friend). It seems to work like a charm. She isn’t dull or hazy like on some of the other drugs and, shall we say, Martin is quite pleased with the result. There do seem to be some side effects, however, and Banks tries to resolve these effects as they present themselves with the help of Emily’s former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But some effects, don’t come on the side of the box!
I couldn’t help myself. Whether related to the movie or my own preconceptions, I immediately began to think of classic films and what they might have put on the poster. “Side effects may include…murder!” The trailer I saw was a touch misleading and a touch over-revealing with the plot and feel of the film. It gave the impression that this was a film where you’re never quite sure what’s going on and everyone is under suspicion. I can understand how some kinds of viewers may react in that fashion. Some people just have to know what happened and glory in the guessing, hoping against hope for that illusory gold star at the end. “Well done, Suzzy, you guessed right and your prize is that no one wants to watch movies with you anymore and you will be sad and alone at a theater for the rest of your life.” If you take your viewing more casually, then the plot will give you a peak behind the curtain and leave you in little doubt of who are the goodies and who are the baddies.
But, as I mentioned, I expected far more darkness than I got. It’s a bit like The Ides of March (2011) where you’re waiting all the time for some sinister evil to show itself when it turns out the conflict has more to do with the characters’ wild disproportionate responses rather than the trouble at the bottom of things. It’s a bit like that, but not really. Don’t know why I brought it up really. It’s because it’s the spirit of the anticipation, the spirit of the thrill. It’s “what’s he going to do?” rather than “what’s going to happen to him?” I feel like thrillers have more to do with external forces—and I include insanity in this for no reason other than convenience—than with internal character choices. Side Effects came up to that fork in the road and looked to pick one direction when, it turns out, it was just mislabeled and it actually went the other way. For what I took in with me, it was like a double bluff.
This is a spoiler paragraph, so skip it if you care about such things. At one point in the film, Dr. Banks is essentially ruined. When he’s faced with all of this free time, he starts digging a little and he thinks he’s found something. He has found something. He shouldn’t know he’s found something, but he’s hit upon the truth. The way in which this occurs is very like hitting the target while shooting in the dark. I can see how he’d have his suspicions, especially when those suspicions are driven by his anger at this case ruining his life. But that little nugget, the blame and the anger driving his decisions would, in another film, have led to his going down a psychotic rabbit hole until he hit bottom and died. It would have been ambiguous as to what really happened. A third movie would have just gotten Banks killed mysteriously and left it at that, again ambiguous and dark. But in Scott Z. Burns’s final script, neither happened. Everyone got what they deserved.
I don’t think anyone has ever or could ever challenge Soderbergh on his execution. He films the movie extremely well. I love the look of it. It’s sharp and close and silky without being too glossy. The music from Thomas Newman is excellent. For a psychological movie like this, you’d expect the performances to make or break the film, but the storytelling short circuits that to some extent. The portioning of the story makes it so that the real nuanced acting—the acting where a character is doing one thing but we know might be feeling another—is cramped into the final third of the film. In a funny way, when a character is portrayed as a good actor, they have to be an imperfect actor so that we know they’re acting, otherwise the logic of film breaks down. After all, an actor plays a part and if the actor plays one part fully and then the other, “true” part fully, then the actor just plays two parts and that’s an end to it. Basically, that means that any actor who doesn’t rely entirely upon their own persona can perform that two-part task. It’s Jude Law who has to make the more difficult performance, and he does it very well, but it’s cramped into those final scenes. So that makes it difficult for me to make a recommendation on the movie.
Well, listen, Side Effects is available and many people have had some very good results with one or more treatments, so I’ll leave it with you to decide.