TBTS Reviews: Side Effects
Good ol’ Steven Soderbergh. Upon review of his directorial work, it occurs to me that I’ve actually consistently liked his movies. I’m particularly fond of his late-90s/early-2000s output. Movies like The Limey, Out of Sight, and yes, even Solaris were well conceived and entertaining as hell. And some of his later work, like Haywire and Magic Mike, is fun without taking itself too seriously. Side Effects feels like two different movies. Fortunately, one of them is actually really good.
Side Effects starts out like a pretty standard psychological thriller cum cautionary tale. In the first half, there is a lot of on-the-nose commentary (perhaps too on-the-nose) about our over-medicated society and the lax and cynical way pharmaceuticals are tested and marketed. Frankly, it felt clumsy and obvious to me; a little too much of the standard issue Hollywood hand-wringing. My wife disagreed, feeling that it was all a very deliberate set-up for the latter half, wherein the movie quickly becomes a genuinely exciting investigative crime thriller. Regardless of how I felt about how Side Effects begins, it ends so strongly that I am inclined to pardon whatever peccadilloes I may have had.
Perhaps owing to the duality of this movie, it starts out relatively simply. The opening shot is a grisly scene, with bloody footprints leading down a hallway, establishing that something truly awful is to come. Flash-backward a bit and we get Emily (Rooney Mara), a young woman in New York. Her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from a 4-year prison sentence for insider trading and the couple struggles to begin their life anew. As Martin makes promises of reestablishing himself in the world of finance, Emily appears to sink into crippling depression. This quickly leads to a suicide attempt, upon which we are introduced to conscientious psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). As Banks begins to treat Emily’s condition, he prescribes a barrage of SSRI medications and other anti-depressants, the side effects (ding-ding-ding!) of which become more and more severe for Emily. Without revealing any major spoilers let it be known that Emily, presumably under the influence of these drugs, does something bad and the repercussions severely damage Banks’ professional reputation. Eventually, however, Banks grows suspicious as to the nature of Emily’s depression.
And here we begin the second half of Side Effects. The interesting half. The half that gains complexity and nuance in the blink of an eye. Again, to remain spoiler-free, I’ll simply say that Dr. Banks becomes obsessed with Emily’s condition and the timeline of her behavior. His primary goal being to save his reputation, his career, and ultimately his marriage. Interestingly, in addition to being generally more dramatic and exciting than the first half, this half of the movie becomes somewhat of a commentary on the kinds of things an otherwise “good” person can be driven to when his or her livelihood is threatened. Banks finds himself doing some impressively devious manipulation, double-crossing, and backstabbing to get to the truth.
The actors’ performances are strong throughout. Jude Law nails “understated, proper British psychiatrist” at first, and then nails “obsessed conspiracy theorist” later. Channing Tatum does a fine job with the relatively short amount of screen time allotted to him. Catherine Zeta-Jones is deliciously smarmy (and ultimately diabolical) as Dr. Siebert, Emily’s former therapist, to whom Dr. Banks goes for additional insight. But Rooney Mara… my god. Not only is she a dynamic, compelling actor, but she’s a goddamn chameleon to boot. We last saw her as the titular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, wherein she was very deliberately dour, dark, and off-putting. Her Lisbeth Salander in that film was capable, suspicious, violent, and thoroughly unconcerned with conventional beauty. In Side Effects, Mara is gorgeous, shy, and vulnerable. Her Emily appears to struggle with the cards life has dealt her and her depression becomes all-consuming, and Mara’s ability shines even brighter as Dr. Banks’ story unfolds in the second half of the film.
While not exactly on the same fast-track to superstardom as, say, Jennifer Lawrence (whose bullet trajectory to the A-list is, I fear, unsustainable), Rooney Mara is definitely one to watch. I predict hers will be a slow burn and we will see her pick up more and more accolades for stellar performances as she gains experience. As I said, Side Effects doesn’t exactly impress with quite the entirety of its 106-minute running time. The first half can get a bit obvious and preachy about the pharmaceutical industry, but the story has such a strong second half that I find myself happily recommending it. Go forth and enjoy!