Side Effects Review

Side Effects Poster

Steven Soderbergh is a very diverse director. While he can direct all manner of high production value, high concept movies such as the Ocean’s trilogy, Soderbergh can also dial it back and make a more reserved film that’s effective in a different way.

Side Effects is more towards the latter end of Soderbergh’s films. But does it work? Well, much like the title, and much like the pitch, it does… but there are some side effects.

Side Effects (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum)The film follows Emily Taylor, played by Rooney Mara, the wife of Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum). At the top of the film, Martin is released from prison, having been put there after being caught for dealing in insider trading. Emily, overwhelmed by the situation of Martin returning to a world where all the pressure is on her to provide, intentionally drives her car into a wall. Seen as a suicide attempt, Emily is introduced to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks, played by Jude Law.

Dr. Banks prescribes medications to Emily, only to discover that she begins to suffer from the side effects of the tablets she’s given, eventually rising to a dramatic crescendo, which is where the trailer sets you up for. But that’s only half of the movie. 

Normally that would be okay, but given a world where we are fed trailers all the time, this is a case where a trailer has deceived in such a way where we are not quite robbed, but made confused. This isn’t a regular horror movie misdirection or similar play on tropes; the film isn’t even of a genre that benefits from that. If anything it will leave you going ‘huh?’ for a moment before you’re then introduced to a very different movie.

This is not as masterful as, say, a Hitchcockian turn of events. As evidenced with the recent Stoker, modern cinema can pull off Hitchcockian narrative, but Side Effects misses. The story itself is a mixed bag, strung along with awkward dialogue and painfully forced lines of exposition coupled with interesting themes. It is a movie that is trying to say something about the state of the world, but one that is heavy handed and not at all subtle.

It takes the idea that going to therapists and mood-regulating medicine prescriptions are common fare in a contemporary America, of which I’m sure is accurate, but the writing takes ideas of demonising that commonplace and making the business of helping people seem a little too cold and corrupt.

Side Effects deals with morality and ethics in such a way that raises so many questions it’s hard to see if that many questions should be raised, or if the writer just really wanted to drive the point home.

Side Effects (Jude Law and Catherine Zeta Jones)Of course, the film has several saving graces. Jude Law puts in a fantastic performance and Rooney Mara for the most part does the same; the moments that she misses can be put down to the state of her character at that time. Catherine Zeta-Jones also plays a role as fellow psychiatrist Victoria Siebert, who turns from ally to rival of Banks several times throughout the movie’s duration.

What is probably best about the film is how good it looks, using shallow focus and really tight close-ups very effectively. People move in and out of shot in such a way that’s very claustrophobic and personal, where we, much like the camera, need to focus to see the story told on their face.

Conversely, the camera uses space very well. The camera will be placed further back from the subject, or off center, or will rotate around on a point in a way very effective to the scene at hand. In one instance, we are placed in a room as an observer, like we are another person in the room watching events from where we stand. Small details like that help create an engaging film. 

The film also uses light and colour very well. When things seem to be optimistic and under control the palate is much more rich and vibrant. Emily’s face is bright with striking red lipstick, while when the film takes more sullen turns her face lacks colour and make-up. At times where the narrative calls on things being helpless, the film is much more dark and grey, much like the fog of depression Emily’s character cites.

On a purely technical basis, Side Effects is a strong film that owes much to the cinematography and the performances from Law and Mara that help it. Outside of that though, it’s a heavy handed film that comes off as preachy. The dialogue at times is horrid, the narrative looks for Hitchcock but misses by a mile, and the themes, while interesting, are given an overdose.

It’s a movie that should only be taken once, and probably not while operating heavy machinery. It goes on for too long, which may cause drowsiness, and with problems in each act and the overall storytelling, it just might cause a headache. If problems persist, stop watching the movie immediately and consult a better one. I hear Oz: The Great and Powerful is good.

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