Side Effects (2013) – Steven Soderbergh

Hitchcock might have made Side Effects (2013), as there are a number of elements in it that would have appealed to him. There’s psychoanalysis, unexplained behavior, innocent men plagued with legal trouble, murder and no fewer than two narrative left turns. What makes Side Effects more than a cosmetic Hitchcock imitation is that while Hitch might have been drawn to the subject matter, he wouldn’t have made it in the way Steven Soderbergh has. Soderbergh has shown a deft hand at easy, cool style exercises, but here he labors a bit. This isn’t a negative; the movie just lacks the polish and sheen of much of his work, and the movie is somehow better for it. Hitchcock wouldn’t be caught dead without polish and sheen.

The movie stars Rooney Mara as Emily, a young wife whose husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has just been released from prison. She crashed the family car, an accident that psychologists think might have been a suicide attempt. She begins visiting Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an ambitious analyst who is pursuing patients and drug companies alike to support his unemployed wife and young son. A frustrated Emily begs for a quickfix pill and Banks prescribes Ablixa, an antidepressant Emily’s former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) recommended. Soon Martin has been stabbed to death by Emily, who claims to not have been conscious during the event, and a trial for murder threatens Emily’s freedom and Banks’ good name and professional future. “Did your patient do it? Are they guilty?” Dierdre Banks (Vinessa Shaw) asks her husband. “In this case they aren’t the same thing,” he replies.

That’s the provocative premise, and Side Effects is quite the potboiler, but what lifts the movie above the level of a clever Law and Order episode is Soderbergh’s deft maneuvering of the things he wants to put across. The movie reminded me of Silver Linings Playbook (2012) in that it begins as if it’s going to be a serious study of mental illness but then devolves into something else. Where Silver Linings Playbook went completely off the rails into screwball, Side Effects is able to double back on itself by using its scintillating structure to pose more than a few difficult questions about ethics in psychiatric medicine while never betraying its thriller nature. It’s in line with Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), which used its exploitative story to craft a thoughtful investigation into the workings of a mass endemic. In Side Effects, we learn a lot about the process of therapy and the dangerous areas doctors put themselves in when treating illnesses that affect behavior. 

Outside of Scorsese, there’s no American director more obsessed with the way things work, and in Side Effects, Soderbergh takes the opportunity to show us the various sides of drug creation, distribution and prescription all while spinning a compelling web of suspense. It’s quite a trick. There’s an element of Arbitrage (2012) here as our moral compass spends much of its time being knocked around without any of the characters becoming unseemly until all the cards are played. In another of this movie’s many twists, it goes from implicating a system where individuals are helpless victims to sharpening the focus to reveal that the system is made up of individuals who are hardly prey.

Mostly removed is Soderbergh’s hip, breezy storytelling; in its place is something more muddied, as if the movie is walking through fog on shoes made of tar. It maintains a steady narrative propulsion and certainly never loses our attention, but it feels as if it’s struggling—it can nearly put it together but can’t quite. I’m not sure this isn’t a stylistic choice. Because of the strength of the script and the performances, the movie’s coarse storytelling doesn’t frustrate but enhances our understanding of the mental swamp some of the disturbed find themselves in. It’s an impressive melding of story and style that turns out to be another stroke of Hitchcockian misdirection.

Soderbergh has gone on record that he’s retiring after Side Effects, and the consensus seems to be that the world will wait and see if he really calls it quits. I have my reservations about Soderbergh (he strikes me as a stylistic chameleon but not a terribly original voice; he also is inconsistent in his choice of material), but the Hollywood landscape will be worse without him, if for the lack of narrative diversity alone. A scan of his filmography reveals a grocery list of varying and uniformly excellent movies that nearly all of moviedom should be envious of. Soderbergh has a ceiling that only his best movies like Che (2008), Bubble (2006), Schizopolis (1996) and The Informant! (2009) have threatened, but his basement is better than plenty of directors’ best. There’s an assumption that quality thrillers like Out of Sight (1998), Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Haywire (2011) are easy, but Soderbergh has been one of only a few Hollywood directors who can do them consistently. Like much of his work, Side Effects is both a genre piece and a synthesis of the things currently in the filmic ether and the things he’s interested in at the moment. This often turns a Soderbergh movie into a hide-and-seek for influences but Side Effect, though it certainly borrows much of itself from other sources, remains a potent drug.

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