Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns, starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum - Rated R
A good psychological thriller is hard to find these days. This might be because when one hears “psychological,” they automatically assume there’s going to be a twist ending or something, and because of this, the writers try to throw nothing but curveballs at the audience, which leaves everything a jumbled mess (kind of like this sentence). Thankfully, director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns don’t try to mess with the audience too much with Side Effects. Instead, they provide a finely crafted thriller that will leave you guessing here and there, but will never make you feel cheated.
Side Effects marks the end of Soderbergh’s directing career (I don’t buy it, but that’s the story), and if it is, then it is a fine end. The film is all over the place in a good way. At times I thought it was a condemnation of any number of things: pharmaceuticals, psychologists, Wall Street, and/or our justice system. The argument could be made that the film is about any single one of those things. That doesn’t mean Side Effects is some sloppily pieced together political message movie; it just means that it makes you think and keeps your attention.
The film, without delving too far into spoiler territory, is about a depressed woman (Rooney Mara) who becomes the focal point of a debate about antidepressants after an incident. Her doctor (Jude Law) comes under scrutiny because he prescribed the pills, and he basically turns into a conspiracy theorist trying to figure out what went wrong.
The film is much denser than that synopsis, and that’s the point. Soderbergh puts together the film in such a way that it feels natural for it to shift around because we’re shifting with the characters. He films depression in a very effective way. The use of lighting, focus, and camera angles convey a troubled, distracted mind without being too showy. In fact, this film could have been just about a depressed person and it would be worth watching for the style of it alone. The labyrinthine plot allows the film to be more than that as the viewer goes along with Jude Law as he unravels it all.
Style and plot can carry a movie just fine, but the acting has to be up to the challenge as well. Luckily, Side Effects has a very talented cast. First, Mara, who has already proven herself with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, channels a depressed, damaged person to near perfection. Her performance is actually quite layered for a role that could be a plain, weepy part if handled differently (I’ll explain more in the spoilers section). Jude Law is always good, but I really enjoyed this performance because it allowed him to be a bit crazy, and he excels when he gets to be unhinged. Current do-no-wrong superstar Channing Tatum continues his streak here. And Catherine Zeta-Jones rounds out the cast nicely as a slightly mysterious psychologist.
All in all, Side Effects was a very pleasant surprise amid the usual crappy/boring material released during this time. If Soderbergh does truly leave the director’s chair, then this is as good a film to go out on as any, but I hope he’s not finished. Side Effects doesn’t strike me as the work of someone at the end of their career. This is a film that shows the prolific Soderbergh has hit his stride, but he’s decided to stop running regardless. It’s too bad, because I want to see more films like Side Effects. Having your head messed with can be fun sometimes.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
I nearly didn’t write this review because of the possibility of spoiling the film. This is why I’ve waited so long to publish the review, as well. When it comes to films with genuine surprises, even a vague review can ruin the experience. I went into the film knowing very little and I’m sure that’s why it worked for me. Hopefully, you’re only stumbling upon this review after you’ve seen the film.
Anyway, now that you’ve seen it, you know why Mara’s performance was, in fact, layered. She was never depressed, but only faking it. This is an easy role to defend, of course. If she did terribly, then that was on purpose because her character wasn’t actually depressed. Or if she did it well, then that shows her character was a good actress, much like Mara herself. I’m going with the latter because she had me fooled. I totally bought her depression, much like everyone onscreen. I was shocked when she stabbed Tatum, and I was equally surprised when it became more and more evident that it was premeditated murder. I went through the exact same feelings that Jude Law’s character must have gone through. That is why I loved this film. The filmmakers put me through the experiences of the characters on an emotional level. Sure, action directors place you in the action all the time, but it is rare for a viewer to be on the same level as a character in a psychological thriller. Usually, you’re able to be at least one step ahead of each character in a film like this, but I certainly was not. That just made this film immensely enjoyable for me. It truly surprised me, and I feel like it’s harder and harder to be surprised by movies.
Of course, maybe I’m just an idiot. Regardless, this film was smart enough to truly keep me guessing. If I had known it was a film like that going in, I think I would have figured it out and enjoyed it much less.