SIDE EFFECTS– 4 STARS
What can I say but “paranoia sells.” Movies over the years have found glorious ways of making something benign or statistically safe appear menacing and scary. Look was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho did for motels and shower. Look was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws did for sharks and swimming at the beach. Look what Chucky did for dolls (well, maybe not that one so much). When a story is done right and hits the right chord, a good filmmaker can make even ice cream look like the spawn of Satan.
With Side Effects, the latest (and rumored final, more on that later) directorial effort from esteemed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, the director evokes that magic emotion by finding tension and suspense in an unexpected place for the second time. About a year-and-a-half ago, Soderbergh scored a modest hit with the star-studded Contagion (my full review), preying on our country’s hypochondriac fears of flus and viruses with a nice little pot-boiler of a movie. His trigger is much more subtle with Side Effects. He targets the implications of depression and the prescription drug industry. You may not be shivering now, but you might before the movie is over. Don’t jump too far ahead of me. Side Effects is not a horror movie. Don’t be too spooked. It would be put on the “psychological drama” shelf at the video store. For one thing, it is definitely the polar opposite of his last film, Magic Mike, but that’s what makes Steven Soderbergh so good. He’s rarely the same director twice.
The movie chillingly opens with what clearly appears to be a murder scene, illustrated with visual clues that you will need later, before introducing us to Emily Taylor, played by Rooney Mara, who you know as the Lisbeth Salander from David Fincher’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She’s a fragile young NYC wife who’s been stuck at home and a lifeless job while awaiting her husband Martin’s (Channing Tatum, in his third consecutive spin with Soderbergh after Haywire and Magic Mike) release from a four-year prison sentence for the white collar crime of insider trading. Both she and Martin though being back together would be jubilant, but their sparks are awkward and Emily can’t shake her depression from him being away so long.
In a foggy trance of sorts, Emily leaves work and drives her car head-on into a parking garage wall in an apparent suicide attempt. More than just a cry for help, the state issues her case to psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Contagion‘s Jude Law), who examined her in the hospital after the accident. In their sessions and encounters that follow, Dr. Banks begins to peel back layers to the onion that is Emily and her apparent long history with depression, anxiety, and mental illness. He even digs deep enough to interview her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones), and learns even more.
Swayed by profitable side studies at work, he puts Emily on an experimental drug named Ablixa. It appears to work from an emotional standpoint for Emily, but she develops a habit of sleepwalking as a side effect. It’s the mystery of the drug and those side effects that lead to the murder scene we were introduced to at the start of the film. I’ll stop with the details right here and say that it’s a cuss-out-loud of a twist when it happens and who it happens to. It’s also just the tip of the iceberg. The entire second half of the film deals with the tangled and dangerous spider web of fallout and ramifications that stem from the crime scene. Let me just say that it definitely grabs your attention from here on out.
I may be aiming too high with this praise, but I really think Side Effects is the kind of movie famed director Alfred Hitchcock would make if he were alive and working in this era. It has that level of twisted nerve and ripe subject matter. While never delving into horror levels with its narrative, as I assured you at the beginning, the build-up and suffocation of Side Effects is subtle and the ever-growing paranoia of the situation, between the murder and the ensuing court cases and investigations, is akin to some of Hitch’s best work. Screenwriter and frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion, The Bourne Ultimatum, and soon Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) delivered a knockout of a story. Its final denouement of revealed secrets might reach a little far for plausibility, but I will still call it extremely effective and better than the ending stamp Soderbergh gave us in Contagion.
One strong component that makes this Hitchcock effect of Side Effects possible is the acting. In different hands, these characters could have tails-pinned towards absurdity and wild stupidity. With more neurotic over-the-top performers, this could have gotten really to a Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct level of parody. This is a more dangerous and less emotive display of mental illness when compared to something like Silver Linings Playbook. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence couldn’t play these parts. Instead, the spooky and reserved Rooney Mara never lets you fully behind the curtain of her eyes and never acts like a raving lunatic, which is the normal pitfall for this kind of role. You could argue that it’s a little too similar to Lisbeth Salander, but it works. Beyond her, this is really Jude Law’s movie. After the crime, he takes over the movie’s point-of-view and pace. His surprise and reaction becomes our surprise and reaction. Neither performance is Oscar-worthy, by any means, but they are effective to keep the movie’s tone on the Hitchcock-like track.
Side Effects, like Contagion before it, won’t make shock value headlines or get repeat business at the box office. However, it will do the same for pill bottles and drug commercials that Contagion did for sneezing and handshakes. The movie successfully plants that magical paranoia and suspicion that follows you out of the theater. It’s a true slow boiler and pre-Psycho Hitchcock in terms of flair. Side Effects is an outstanding little episode and addition to Soderbergh’s resume. It’s the first really good film of 2013 and, chances are, it will make my halfway and year-end lists before the calendar changes again.
Rumor has it that the director, who just turned 50 last month, is contemplating retirement from making films, citing the endeavor to find a new medium and new challenges. I hope that’s not the case. Between the pulpy fun of Out of Sight, Haywire, Magic Mike, and the Ocean’s 11 trilogy to the audacious brass balls of The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Contagion, and Side Effects, he’s easily one of the best directors of his generation. If it’s true, I will certainly miss him.
LESSON #1: THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF DEPRESSION— I don’t think I can name a more maligned ailment or illness in this world than depression. You have a mountain of real examples and cases of its power and potency and an equal mountain of people and policies that dismiss it entirely. Depression comes in so many forms, degrees, and manifestations that there is no one lightning rod cure for it. Some drugs really help folks, while, for others, they take something away from them. The same can be said for counseling and psychiatric care. We get a great look this slippery slope of peaks and valleys in Side Effects.
LESSON #2: THE SEVERITY OF SIDE EFFECTS TO PHARMACEUTICALS AND MAN-MADE PRODUCTS— Like I alluded to with the comparison between Side Effects and Soderbergh’s other film Contagion, this movie will make you a little paranoid and fearful of prescription drugs and pills the way Contagion did with sneezes and viruses. People need to know that modern medicine has become a billion dollar business and a science of risks, interests, and liabilities. Doctors and hospitals are salesmen sometimes more than they are caretakers. Know what you are putting in your body. While some drugs and pharmaceuticals have life-saving benefits, the side effects can be troubling. We all joke and laugh when we watch a Cialis or Viagra commercial and the announcer reading off side effects, but some are really serious. Buyer beware.
LESSON #3: PAST BEHAVIOR IS THE BEST PREDICTOR OF FUTURE BEHAVIOR— This is the quote of the movie, and gets dropped as comeuppance twice. This is deeper than just saying “history repeats itself” or “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting the same results.” The line delves into the human and therapeutic side of treatment for mental illness. There’s a reason psychiatrists and psychologists delve so deep and detailed into a patient’s history. They know that 90% of things were triggered by either a clear or gradual event or root. Identifying those catalysts can help predict future reactions and responses. Because some of those ailments come to people at a young age, they only know that and accept their flawed condition as their level of “normal” operating capacity. Correcting someone out of that norm is very difficult.