Directed by Steven Soderbergh
The opening shot of a camera tracking across bloody footprints in an empty apartment creates the type of foreboding that we’re in store for a gory affair, but instead “Side Effects” starts out as a character drama introducing the characters and the set up for what one might imagine will be more of an indictment of the pharmaceutical business and psychiatry system then a psychological thriller. It’s a fairly slow build as we watch Emily start experiencing the signs of depression and she starts taking pills, which make her feel better but have side effects like her sleepwalking.
Roughly 40 minutes into the movie, we get a whopper of a shock twist that reveals the film’s true nature. It’s hard to discuss at length exactly what happens, but the side effects of her medication get Emily sent to a psychiatric hospital as Banks is blamed for what happened and he becomes obsessed, playing detective to uncover the truth about Emily’s condition.
The film ultimately turns into a two-hander between Law and Mara with the other key character being Catherine Zeta Jones as Emily’s former doctor, who plays a larger part in the last act. It’s hard to talk about the movie in depth without giving away some of the clever twists that Soderbergh and Burns deliver, but Mara’s quite a force of nature, playing a character with so many emotional layers. She has to come off as someone confused by what is happening to her, but also showing everything from happiness to rage, sometimes in the course of a single scene. Law gives another strong performance as her doctor, who comes under fire and finds his life turned upside down by what happens.
Soderbergh directs with the same artistic eye he brought to some of his smaller films like “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” generally avoiding the normal tropes of genre thrillers, while using New York City locations in a way that’s more clinical than romantic. It works well and the accompanying electronic score by Thomas Newman brings a haunting and chilling tone to the entire film especially in the more dream-like sequences.
They’re all working from a terrific script by Burns, one in which all of the information feels authentic, while avoiding some of the regular problems with high concept thrillers in that every detail has been worked out so that everything can fit together in a certain way. For instance, you may at first wonder why Martin was in jail for insider trading at the beginning and what that has to do with anything, but every piece of the puzzle is there for a reason so that things will fit together in a certain way.
Even if you go into “Side Effects” knowing the general plot and even some of the twists, little can prepare you for where things go in the last act, as the film turns into something closer to an Adrian Lyne erotic thriller and the car starts veering off the rails. Because the film never goes very far into genre territory and the twists are handled in such a matter of fact way, it’s hard to fully embrace the ending. Some women may find the story’s resolution to be somewhat misogynistic, which probably wasn’t deliberate, but once past that, there are enough twists and climaxes to be a satisfying thriller.
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