Side Effects

June 8, 2013

Warning: This film is very plot and twist-heavy, so SPOILERS are present.


In his supposedly penultimate film (I take his ‘retirement’ with a grain of salt), Steven Soderbergh once again genre-jumps feet-first into a Hitchockian “Wrong Man” thriller that draws heavily on the tradition of psychiatric suspicion.  Working again with a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh’s observant, seemingly dispassionate (some say cold) approach is probably not best suited to the genre staples he’s working for, but it does offer a rich critical broadside against corrupted institutions and the people (knowing or unknowingly) complicit in them.  

Looking over his varied career, Soderbergh heroes are often ragged outsiders taking on the powers that be from the outside, and in this sense, Side Effects is a break from his usual in that everyone involved is in some way corrupted.  Though he follows this to its logical conclusion, there’s a sense that he doesn’t particularly like any of the characters involved, which is both a boon to the ideas of the film and a bane to the normal pleasures of the story.  Emily (Rooney Mara) is married to Martin (Channing Tatum), who has just been released from prison for insider trading.  She also suffers from depression and, after attempting to kill herself, is taken on as a patient by Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).  She pushes to be put on a new drug, Ablixa, and Banks happily obliges.  There is sleepwalking, then a murder, then a trial, and then a career upheaval for Banks, who begins to suspect he’s been played.  After the murder of Martin (a supposed sleepwalk stabbing filmed with an impactfully observant Hitchcockian glee), and the subsequent trial, the film shifts perspectives from the depressed but somewhat unknowable workings of Emily to the more traditional Wrong Man scenario as experienced by Banks.  There is little doubt, even in the first part, that something is amiss (lingering over details like a long glance or the name on the badge of a subway cop belie something other than the traditional affected state-of-mind of Emily), and there’s little doubt that a previous therapist played by Catherine Zeta-Jones is involved.  Once the ruse is established, the film moves into a final act that plays out as a three-player game of deception.  For a film involving numerous twists and the attendant misdirection, it’s remarkably fair.  One never feels betrayed by the reveals, and all the elements Banks exploits in the final act (greed, mistrust, and the power the doctor has over his patient) are firmly established.

What really works in the film is Soderbergh’s distaste for all involved.  The supposed “hero” of the piece, Banks, is very similar to Emily in that their desire to maintain a certain status that wealth and prestige can provide has led them to abandon traditional moral virtues in favour of self-interest, though they do so in completely separate ways.  Emily feels betrayed by her husband but also feels the loss of the lifestyle he provided, so she resorts to murder and a complicated version of insider trading to get what she feels she deserves.  Banks’ wife has lost her job in the recession, and to maintain their lifestyle and to continue to send her son to private schools, he takes on extra work, including $50,000 to “consult” for a drug company, tempting potential participants with free drugs (even if he doesn’t believe it to be ‘wrong’, he knows how to exploit the current state of mental care for his own ends).  One of Jude Law’s qualities as an actor is his ability to effortlessly cross the line between charisma and smugness, and Soderbergh uses this to great effect when depicting the concerned but comfortably empowered psychiatrist in a session and with tossed-off luncheon between a Pharma rep and his partners where he strikes a deal to work for them.  As we reach the final act, Banks is interested in doing what is “right” by him, and has no hesitation with using the power he has as a court-mandated doctor to dangle the terrors of ECT and thorazine in front of Emily to get his way, and even the supposed punishment of the “villain” is marked with a certain cruelty.

It is here that the biggest problem of the film is found.  The Wrong Man thriller is dependent upon the audience’s identification with the character thrown into the Kafkaesque nightmare without having any knowledge or intent to enter it.  There is no explicit choice made, as in a noir, for that character to be thrust into the position he or she might find themselves.  If you think of Cary Grant’s Roger Thornwood in North by Northwest, he’s a charming and hapless salesman thrown into a dangerous, life-threatening world of intrigue because of mistaken identity.  The audience roots for him because the set up requires them to understand that this could happen to anyone.  Soderbergh just plain doesn’t care for Banks, and although the twists are fun and enjoyable, there’s never a real sense of investment in the character that would have us genuinely fear for his well-being – the stakes, after all, is a career and a really nice New York apartment and the luxuries his profession provides.

None of this is to say it is a bad film.  It clearly isn’t.  Soderbergh has his usual mastery of editing and cinematography (by this point he has so firmly established his personal visual palette with the RED camera it’s always a delight), and the performances, especially Law and Mara, who takes on a laconic daze for most of the film until she’s required to realise the trouble she’s in, are good across the board.  If the thriller aspect is lacking in emotional investment, it’s because Soderbergh is interested in presenting the faults of the characters through the corrupted world within which they live, and there’s absolutely no opposing force outside of the system for the audience to truly get behind.  The best aspect of the film is Soderbergh’s use of the workings of a classic thriller and the suspicion of psychiatry that runs through the classics of the genre (from Hitchock’s Spellbound and Vertigo to Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corrider) to draw a line between the barbaric past and the supposedly friendly present.  In Side Effects, there is a clear belief that nothing within the psychiatric industry has changed significantly.  They just have friendlier adverts.



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