Movie Review: Side Effects
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Side Effects
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Open Road Films
Rated R | 106 Minutes
Release Date: February 8th, 2013

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike) and written by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), Side Effects begins as an exploration of the pharmaceutical industry and experimental mood-altering drugs. But slowly, Soderbergh’s film becomes something different altogether.

The film follows Emily (Rooney Mara) and her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), a New York couple whose world unravels when a new drug prescribed by Emily’s psychiatrist (Jude Law) – intended to treat anxiety and depression – has unexpected side effects.

Accustomed to a life of luxury and blissful matrimony, Emily’s world collapsed when her dream husband was arrested for insider trading. Since then, she has been struggling with depression and anxiety about the future, or her lack of one. After serving a 4-year prison term, Martin has returned home to help rebuild his life with Emily.

Emily begins seeing Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), who recommends better living through chemistry via a new SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), Ablixa. In the past, Emily hasn’t had much luck with drugs like Prozac, Welbutrin, Zoloft, or Effexor, so she’s willing to try the pharmaceutical industry’s latest ‘miracle cure.’

“One Pill Can Change Your Life.”

This is where Soderbergh’s psychological thriller shift gears and picks up speed before heading in a totally different direction. At first, Ablixa improves Emily’s quality of life. She has energy, she feels hopeful, she can even have sex with her husband, but then the side effects kick in – the sleepwalking – which has turned Emily into a liability, a danger to herself and those around her.

In many ways, Side Effects is a composite of the director’s 2011 release, Contagion, and Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film, Black Swan. Soderbergh manages to push the story forward with vigor while simultaneously creating an illusion of fatigue – of drowsiness – as if the image itself is depressed. He works in a muted color palette of pale yellows and whites, as if the celluloid was exposed to a poisonous fog.

I say celluloid even though Soderbergh’s film was shot in 4K Digital using RED Epic cameras, but you get the idea – it’s hard to wax poetic about digital color-correction and films as electronic files.

The camera movement is precise, measured, and each shot feels like it lingers for just a moment too long. It’s uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and reminiscent of the greats: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Polanski. Soderbergh underscores these scenes with delusory music, and we feel drugged – hypnotized even – under the influence of his cinematic spell.

“How are things going for you?”

Having recently watched Contagion, I found some interesting similarities and contrasts between Jude Laws’s characters: conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede runs a blog called Truth Serum Now, whereas psychiatrist Jonathan Banks actually uses a truth serum (sodium pentothal) to uncover some unsettling secrets about his patients.

Both characters are fantastic conduits for Law’s strengths: needy, panic-stricken men who look after their own best interests. Then again, this could just speak to Soderbergh’s ability to simply get more out of his actors than other directors. He basically lets Jude Law ‘freak the fuck out’ and scream at a world that refuses to listen.

Then there’s Rooney Mara, who delivers her first *real* performance on the big screen in Side Effects. Sure, she was great in David Ficher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but her performance was based on a template created by Noomi Rapace.

Here, Mara plays a fragile, dainty young woman with a shattered psyche and, as she descends deeper into depression, Mara juggles the manic desperation of her illness and the optimism her new prescription brings effortlessly. There’s a touch of Natalie Portman’s Swan Queen in there somewhere, just beneath the surface, as Emily transforms into an entirely different character.

And finally there’s Channing Tatum, whose career was at a dead end until his potential was realized in last year’s Magic Mike. Again, Soderbergh taps into something other filmmakers seem to overlook. In movies like The Vow and Dear John, Tatum is the too-good-to-be-true-but-is dreamboat, but here he’s just too-good-to-be-true and it turns out he’s a corrupt, double-dealing weasel who, as soon as he’s out of jail, instantly begins scheming on how to get his dirty money back.

A gripping, provocative film with solid performances, Side Effects is the first real film of 2013, and if Soderbergh sticks by his word – it’ll be his last. If that turns out to be true, the director picked an intriguing psychological thriller to go out on – though I hope he’s just bluffing us.

Considering the director has released four movies in two years, it’s a dizzying accomplishment that Side Effects doesn’t feel ‘churned out’ or ‘rushed’ in any way. Soderbergh has created a methodical, memorable film that keeps you guessing up to the very end.

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