SIDE EFFECTS is the type of smart adult fare we don't seem to get out of Hollywood much these days. But what else would you expect from director Steven Soderbergh, who once again has crafted an engaging thriller, this time built around the unlikely subject of mental health, psychiatry and pharmaceuticals? Soderbergh manages to piece these very complex elements together for a satisfying mystery that will have you racing to put together the puzzle as to what's happening before all is revealed. In fact, SIDE EFFECTS is one of the more difficult films I've ever had the task of reviewing, not only because the less you know about it, the better (stay away from spoilers as best as you can and go in as fresh as possible - you'll thank me for it later), but also because the movie is a bit of a shape-shifter. Right when you think you have the film pegged as following one given path, Soderbergh, along with writer Scott Z. Burns, sets you off in another surprising direction, compiling sprawling character arcs for all of its main cast that keep you guessing where things will ultimately end up once the final credits start rolling.
Rooney Mara is at the center of the film as Emily Taylor, a depressed wife trying to find some degree of normalcy in her life once again with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) being released from prison after serving a four-year sentence for insider trading. However, as he tries to reintegrate himself back into the world and back into some relationships that could lead to business opportunities once again, Emily struggles with being supportive, finding herself feeling hopeless and at times suicidal, culminating in a moment where she drives her car head-on into a parking garage wall. When she's taken into the hospital, she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), the resident psychiatrist called in for a consultation. She is apprehensive about being kept overnight, and cuts a deal with the good doctor to return regularly for therapy in order to get released. Upon coming back, she is set off on the path of trying different prescriptions of antidepressants and neuromeds to find something that works for her, something that's able to stop her brain from telling her that's she sad all the time. Banks tries to accumulate whatever past information he can on Emily as a patient from her former doctor, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones who plays a much bigger role than it initially seems), in order to better treat her, getting glued into other possible drugs that may work better for this particular case. After a tragic set of events though throws Emily's life into upheaval, Banks finds his diagnoses called into question, with his life, his personal and professional relationships and reputation suddenly facing an immense amount of scrutiny and pressure. He's under the microscope trying to save everything he's worked so hard for, as he becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth about what really happened.
I wasn't a fan of Mara in some past roles, namely THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but she is outstanding here as she walks the fine line between depressed and seriously mentally ill. You find yourself constantly waiting for that one moment where she could easily snap, becoming unhinged as her emotional issues becomes too much for her. There is this underlying feeling that there is something wrong with her more than what we see on the surface, and, as the film heads deeper and deeper down its own rabbit hole, there are definitely feelings reminiscient of PRIMAL FEAR that start to creep in as Soderbergh pushes through doubt into whether or not you should actually believe what you're seeing. Law is an absolutely necessity though in making that happen, as he delivers another top-notch performance. Mara may be the method by which SIDE EFFECTS moves forward, but, in many ways, this is his film. We're with him as he's trying to find the best course of action to treat Emily. We're there as he does his due dilligence in researching her patient history to get a better sense of what she's been going through. We understand the moral dilemmas he faces in wanting to earn more money for a better life for him and his girlfriend and his step-son to have a better life together, and needing to push certain drugs by the pharmaceutical companies for trial runs in order to get there. We become invested with him in learning the truth and uncovering the deep mysteries of SIDE EFFECTS, and we empathize with his inability to cut things loose as his life spirals further and further out of control. Law does all of that with this fantastic script at his disposal, creating a character we want to see end up on the right side of things, for far too much blame and finger-pointing is being thrust in his direction just for doing his job the best that he could.
While shooting an absolutely beautiful film, too, Soderbergh manages to raise a lot of questions about the mindset of Americans towards drugs and mental health. While he's not trying to answer them one way or another, it's interesting storytelling to examine issues such as the magic pill society we've become in the United States where we think a pill is instantly the cure-all answer we've been looking for, no matter the ailment. It gets more intriguing to ask about the medicine, and if these pharmaceuticals are necessary and where the lines should be drawn between medical professionals and those companies which make these drugs. Are people really getting better, or is it all just advertising and propaganda that have us believing these drugs do help? Are more drugs the answer to combat the side effects of what we're putting in our bodies to treat other problems? When does that cycle end? These are complicated questions asked very simply by an easy to follow mystery, giving you some heavier material to consider while you're also trying to uncover what SIDE EFFECTS is hiding. See... I told you it was quite intelligent.
If this is indeed Steven Soderbergh's last film, he's going out on an extremely high note. While the pace of SIDE EFFECTS may be slow in spots, it's essential to building the foundation for this film, in order to get into the meaty bits. The film does progress from one point to the next rather steadily, never overcomplicating its plot and delivering straight-forward answers when the time comes for revelation. They don't quite make them like this anymore, which is a damn shame. It's refreshing for a film to exercise my mind a bit while I'm in the theatre, creating a satisfying experience as you play along as a bit of detective yourself. SIDE EFFECTS is a dose of strong filmmaking definitely worth taking.
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