One of my frustrations with Hollywood is the fact that the studios spew out trailers that give away most, if not all, of the film they are trying to sell us on - and I know I’m not alone in this. I would be a happy camper if I could somehow manage to find the willpower to avoid watching these two-minute and forty-second spoilers, but I am so, so weak. Sometimes we are graced by the movie Gods with a teaser trailer that shows very little by way of plot, yet sends a jolt through us to mark our calendars in excitement for the release (The Master’s first teaser comes to mind) – however this is all too rare an occurrence. Thankfully the marketing department for Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects was asleep, on vacation, or hopefully just in their right minds at the time, because this is a superb thriller that no one saw coming.
The opening shot pans across the Manhattan cityscape that leads to the window of an apartment – highly reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – but once inside there isn’t a half-naked Janet Leigh, but instead a bloody crime scene and a model sailboat. This is a glimpse three months into the future, but for now we meet Emily Taylor, who has been waiting for her husband Martin to be released from prison after serving a sentence for insider trading. Supporting the two of them while he is in career limbo, Martin suggests they leave their former life behind for Denver to start over. This causes the stress and depression to build for Emily to the point she puts herself in the hospital. It is in the hospital where she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks who takes her into his care for treatment, pairing therapy and various antidepressants. Nothing seems to be working until Emily suggests he put her on Ablixa – a pill she heard about from a friend – but as we well know, every pill has its side effects.
The film keeps us on our toes with its surprises – something it does quite well in fact. Its thrills channel Hitchcock more than The Sixth Sense, never knowing what exactly is going to happen next, but eagerly waiting on the edge through every scene nonetheless. Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns are a perfect pair, crafting a paranoia trilogy that started with The Informant! and Contagion, only to be triumphed by Side Effects. And like Psycho, Soderbergh masterfully conducts a story around psychology. Hitchcock shocked audiences by depicting a very real disorder that drove Norman Bates insane to the point he murders innocent woman – and at a time when mental disorders weren’t common knowledge. But in today’s day and age, you could chuck a pill bottle and hit someone who suffers from depression, so the filmmakers take advantage of this and use modern pharmaceutical drugs that would today help a character like Bates, and instead suggest that they too can be responsible for madness, raising the question of who or what is to blame.
Aside from writer and director, the cast is the driving force of this film. Rooney Mara hasn’t let down since she burst onto the scene, giving her best performance to date as Emily in the film. Never being a big fan of Jude Law, it surprises me to acknowledge that he keeps up with Mara’s performance here as Dr. Banks, but he earns it in every way, nailing the scenes he shares with each member of the cast. The supporting actors shine as well, with a great part for Catherine Zeta-Jones whose cold demeanor counter balances that of Law quite well. It was great to see Soderbergh rounded up a few key players throughout his career here – even those of late, such as Channing Tatum, who of course is charming as usual and consistently proving himself as an actor to watch. For his last theatrical film, Soderbergh came through once again with Side Effects. It will be a sad day he leaves the director chair behind after Behind the Candelabra this fall, but you can’t help admire a man who knows when to leave – on top. (A)