Movie Review: Side Effects (2013, Dir. Steven Soderbergh)

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Side Effects is advertised as a story about drugs that do not have the expected effect, and while that is not strictly untrue, there is much more to the story than just that. It is part revenge thriller, part story of forbidden love, part crime drama, and part psychological thriller. When genres like these are blended together, I just call it a Soderbergh film.

There are some movies where it is best to know nothing about them going in, and this is one of them. The basic premise is that Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is the psychiatrist of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), helping out with her depression. The supporting cast includes Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dr. Victoria Siebert, a psychiatrist Emily had in the past, and Channing Tatum as Martin Taylor, Emily’s husband. There are many unexpected twists and turns along the way, so try not to ruin them by learning about what happens ahead of time. All I shall say about the plot is that it turns down an unexpected path at the end of each act.

Side Effects is very Hitchcockian; the themes in the film, the shots, and the characters, while they are definitely products of a Soderbergh film, Hitchcock is referenced quite a bit. In fact, the opening shot of the film is incredibly similar to what Hitchcock wished to do with the opening of Psycho: float in from the sky towards a window in a building, as if the audience was to peer into the owner’s lives. The film uses the pills Emily is given as a MacGuffin, a plot device Hitchcock popularized, presented in the form of an object that the characters obsess over to move the plot forward. Banks is an ordinary psychiatrist put into extraordinary circumstances, who also has a double in the form of Dr. Victoria Siebert, and there is transference of guilt to Emily and Banks at various points of the film. The taboo nature of sex, a theme in many Hitchcock films, is explored. There is, to an extent, the idea of ‘The Perfect Murder.’ There is even a train scene. All these themes are borrowed from the Hitchcock canon, so it’s hard to deny the strong influence.

Acting-wise, everyone does a marvelous job in their respective roles. Rooney Mara is given room to pull out all sorts of emotions, emotions she was not allowed to in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, giving her a chance to show her diversity as an actress. Jude Law manages to grow his character throughout the story, allowing the audience to see how he has changed. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a difficult character extremely well, finding the fine line between sly, smart, conniving, and not over-the-top.

The cinematography, done by Soderbergh under the name ‘Peter Andrews’, was absolutely spectacular. It seemed to convey what the characters felt at any given time. For instance, when Emily is at a party, trying to stifle her depression. She is approached by another character, talking to her about some brand of drugs that have  helped someone they knew. When this was brought up, the focus moves away from that person, lingering on Emily, showing how she has zoned out. The camera supports the feelings of isolation and distance between the others during the latter portion of the film.

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Soderbergh’s direction was definitely felt during the film, primarily through the Hitchcockian aesthetics I mentioned earlier, but also through his usual dialogue-ridden scenes, montages, and through his favorite of all themes: lies. Like in Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Bubble, it is not always apparent how prominent the lies are until one looks at the big picture. Although Soderbergh does allow the viewer to see the big picture by the end in this particular film, he easily could have chosen not to.

Soderbergh has mentioned that this will be his last theatrical release, as he wishes to spend time exploring painting. He claims this is just a sabbatical, but in case this is it (aside from Behind the Candelabra, of course) it is not a bad note to end on by any means. I am certain this will be one of my favorites of the year, a mean feat for a film coming out so early in a year loaded with works by some of my favorite people (specifically Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon’s Addiction, and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, among many others). I wish to thank him for making fantastic pieces of art in his 24 year long career.

Thank you Steven Soderbergh. If this is truly the finish line, I am glad I was here to witness the conclusion.

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