Sexual nightmares and sleep crime – Side Effects review

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By Simon Miraudo
March 11, 2013

Steven Soderbergh‘s Side Effects begins as one thing, and then ends as something else entirely. Over the course of its 106 minutes, the feature evolves from an icy, haunting tale of depression and abandonment into a squalid, sordid, serpentine Alfred Hitchcock pastiche. That it can glide from these two poles with us barely realising is a testament to Soderbergh’s talent. The freakishly prolific auteur ends his filmmaking career (or so he claims) with this outrageously compelling murder mystery. In it, we see shades of his different guises from the past twenty years: the artful Hollywood hack (Ocean’s Eleven), the thoughtful thrill-seeker (Out of Sight; Contagion), the man with a message (Traffic; Erin Brockovich), the mad scientist (Schizopolis; Bubble)  and the buck-nasty provocateur (sex, lies, and videotape; Magic Mike). Buck-nasty Soderbergh, I think I’ll miss you most of all.

Ignore the opening shot – a direct nod to Hitch’s Psycho – and the first 30 minutes of Side Effects could stand alone as a tender vignette about a woman doomed by her illness, her circumstances, and the ignorance of those entrusted with taking care of her. A particularly hollow-eyed Rooney Mara plays depression-prone Emily Taylor, whose anxiety is exacerbated by the return of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from prison. Their money and house repossessed following his insider trading conviction, she nervously welcomes him to a modest New York apartment. It’s not long before Martin starts talking about a new business venture with one of his former cellmates. Emily reacts by driving her car into a wall. Psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is concerned about her mental health, and, after speaking with Emily’s former physician Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), puts her on a course of anti-depressant Ablixa. The fog lifts. Emily and Martin’s sex life improves. She begins to sleep-walk. Revealing more of the plot would be a crime.

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Let’s just say that Emily’s reaction to Ablixa leads to a tragedy; one that Banks takes much of the blame for. The good doctor’s efforts to clear his name at first recalls some classic ‘wrong man’ movies. That is, until he discovers a conspiracy torn straight from the Joe Eszterhas playbook. It’s telling that Soderbergh watched Fatal Attraction a lot” while preparing to shoot Side Effects (screenwriter Scott Z. Burns was probably busy studying Basic Instinct). His cinematic swan song indulges in such trashy tropes as truth serum and wire-tapping, and features at least one evil bisexual. Sure, you can read into it as an expose of exploitative drug companies, the dubious ethics of pharmaceutical reps, and the questionable pushing of SSRI onto the mentally ill. (Mild spoiler: In fact, though Banks’ is ostensibly innocent, it’s impossible to deny that both he and Siebert failed Emily as a patient by not accurately diagnosing her true ailment. End spoiler.) Nonetheless, any flick that deploys the notoriously silly ‘double jeopardy’ defence is primarily concerned with entertaining audiences rather than lecturing them.

Mara’s a marvel here, offering up a complicated and layered character far different from those we’ve previously seen in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network. Her long, lifeless locks obscure her face in a manner similar to Samara from The Ring; a visual touch that keeps us wondering whether she’s a femme fatale or a damaged little girl. Law, who takes the lead in the second half, is a sympathetic anti-hero, while recurring Soderbergh players Tatum and Zeta-Jones remind us they often do their best work with him at the helm. Thomas Newman’s drowsy, hypnotic, lullaby-like score perfectly complements the director’s woozy, cloudy camerawork (he shoots his pictures under the alias of Peter Andrews, and edits as Mary Ann Bernard). All of his flourishes are a reminder of how far he’s come since 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, and yet the content of his latest reminds us how prominent those three topics have remained in his career. Side Effects may not be Soderbergh’s best work, but at least he’s going out close to the top of his game.

4/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Side Effects is now showing in cinemas.

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