Review: Side Effects

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Never one for taking the predictable route, neither in narrative nor in his career, Steven Soderbergh has promised that Side Effects is his final theatrical film, either permanently or at least for some time. Though he plans to pursue other disciplines such as painting, theatre, and perhaps long form television, Soderbergh’s place in the pantheon of cinema masters is now assured, for Side Effects brings his oeuvre full circle, wedding a juicy narrative with both psychological and social repercussions.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is more than a little under the weather. Reunited with her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), newly released from prison for insider trading, Emily’s built up depression over four years fails to subside. Looking for a path towards serenity, she turns to a psychiatrist (Jude Law) after a life threatening event. He prescribes her pill after pill, but her general disposition improves little, resulting in public displays of emotional volatility. At a loss for a solution, Dr. Banks seeks out Emily’s last psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who recommends a new drug, Ablixa. Immediately, Emily’s personality revives, but with that personal renaissance comes a drastic consequence. When a dead body is found in her and Martin’s apartment, Emily is accused of murder. However, is she guilty, having been under the influence of Ablixa, or is her psychiatrist, who prescribed the medication in the first place?

This 180 narrative turn also marks a change in protagonists, switching from Emily in the film’s first half to Dr. Banks in the second half. This type of shift might be traditionally frowned upon, but Soderbergh is never one for adhering to tradition, and this change in gears plays to the film’s benefit. Where the first half plays out in near Polanski like fashion, increasingly unhinging Emily, the second half comes closer to the procedural tone that Soderbergh has mastered as Dr. Banks tries to rid himself of guilt. As one of Soderbergh’s most plot heavy films in a while, one might expect the film to run out of gas, but Scott Z Burns’ script adds extra thematic layers to further the conflict. The film’s strongest suit is its depiction of how much of a grip the pharmaceutical industry has on the individual and society at large. Emily is bombarded in the film’s first half by various suggestions about drugs she should take, certainly not limited to the prescriptions from Dr. Banks.

Rooney Mara gives the strongest performance of her young career, and her emaciated figure and wide eyed terror contribute immensely to Emily’s emotionally fragility. Additionally, Mara is given many fun notes to play in what might have otherwise been a fairly thin protagonist. When the focus shifts to Dr. Banks, Jude Law comes through in scene after scene. Law has been relegated to supporting roles in recent years, so his notable attributes as a leading man carry the film through to its twisty conclusion. In supporting roles, Catherine Zeta-Jones is deliciously manipulative as the psychiatrist who knows one or two things about Emily’s past, and Channing Tatum is fine as well, continuing his working relationship with Soderbergh.

Acting as his own director of photography for years, Soderbergh is a complete master of digital photography. While there are those who are still not convinced as to digital’s range in comparison to film, Side Effects makes the case yet again that digital can be a worthy choice when used to the proper effect. There’s a chilly tone evident throughout, and even more upbeat scenes are shot in a slightly overexposed, surrealistic manner. Despite his mastery of pacing in many of his previous films, Soderbergh could have trimmed Side Effects here and there, and perhaps it feels lengthier because of the extraneous elements of plot that develop following traditionally key narrative beats. Of course, in moments of building suspense, his editorial instincts are completely on the mark, be they in early scenes of shock or in later moments of revelation.

Looking back on his career, what has made Steven Soderbergh so endearing to me personally has been his willing to try anything in cinema. Whether his films were acclaimed or maligned, he honestly cared less, which is so refreshing in today’s box office insistent, awards hungry Hollywood culture. His only focus was to push himself and his art in new directions and offer new things to audiences. From heist blockbusters with all star casts to micro budgeted films with non-actors, to a two-part four hour epic on Che Guevara, to a seemingly sleazy but surprisingly resonant film on male strippers, his work is as varied as any career the film industry has ever seen. Steven Soderbergh is a complete American original, and for that in my book, he deserves a spot in the pantheon.

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~ by romancinema on February 9, 2013.

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