Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
If Steven Soderbergh retires, I quit. Soderbergh is one of the best directors working today, delivering such films as Traffic, Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s Trilogy, and one of 2011’s most underrated films, Contagion. He is one of the eras best American storytellers, so when he announced his retirement last year, many, including myself, were stricken with a sense of depression, as temporary as it may have been given he had three films in production at the time. One of those three films, Side Effects, marks his final effort. I fully expect Soderbergh to eventually get back into directing films. He is too young to retire, and too good a filmmaker to leave so much potential on the table. I hope and pray.
Side Effects brings back together the team that constructed Contagion, an effective thriller about a deadly outbreak. Side Effects confronts a different health issue altogether as Emily (Rooney Mara) falls into depression after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) returns home after a 5 year prison stint for insider trading. She begins to see psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law). After consulting with Emily’s former doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr. Banks prescribes a few different drugs to help Emily with her mood. But after a number of different unwanted side effects, they settle on the new to the market pill Ablixa, which calms Emily’s mood, but features some side effects of its own.
I cannot say that I was completely won over by this film as I first experienced it, but such is often the case with a slow burn. Side Effects is a well constructed psychological thriller which presents pieces to its elaborate puzzle bit by bit. A brilliant stroke from the writer/director team as the mystery that is at the center of the film slowly unravels as we, the viewer, are presented with just enough clues and conspiracies to keep interest in the conclusion of the film. It is a fine line to walk when teasing the audience with a mystery, but Soderbergh and Burns tip-toe it with confident precision here. The great cast lends itself to the slight suggestions sprinkled throughout in the form of a hesitation here and a tick there. Even if I am still skeptical of Channing Tatum’s acting ability, I can say with confidence that Mara, Law and Zeta-Jones are all fantastic here.
With that being said, the real central strength of the film lies in the hands of its writer and its director. The script is smart and taut, keeping the audience wrapped around its finger as it unravels at just the right pace. The sure handed direction from Soderbergh only helps in the process as we see what we need to see, when we need to see it, and for exactly as long as we are supposed to see it. The mood and atmosphere of the film are set quite nicely by the cinematography, handled by Soderbergh himself under his alias Peter Andrews. In their softness, the colorfulness manages to become quite bleak in Soderbergh’s interesting compositions. The musical score by legend Thomas Newman adds a layer of complexity to the film as well.
Some will find the film to be slow, perhaps even boring, but such is the case with a film that can fall under the slow burn category. For those looking for a fast paced thriller, this is not that film. It takes its time with getting to the end and is a better, smarter, more complex film for it. Fast paced would not have suited the story one bit. After having seen Rooney Mara in The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and now this, I am excited for her next project whatever it may be. The same can be said about Steven Soderbergh, though it appears that his next project is very much more up in the air as it were. Please come back Steven!