Film Review: Steven Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS – Non-linear Structure with a Twist on Standard Evil-Shrink Characters of Psychological Thriller Past

Film Review by:  Gordon K. Smith

sideeffectsmpA thriller that starts off as a legal drama, then turns dark social satire, and switches gears again at the halfway point,  Steven Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS somehow pulls this off without seeming like a cheat.  In the process it throws in elements of PSYCHO,  non-linear structure, and a twist on the standard evil-shrink characters of psychological thrillers past.

In fact, there’s a lot of twists in the screenplay by frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns,  and they keep coming til the fadeout.  It all pivots around Emily Tayor (Rooney Mara, the Hollywood GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO), whose hubby Martin (Channing Tatum) is getting out of prison where he’s done time for insider trading.  Emily’s clearly disturbed by Martin’s absence, then return, in some way or other – enough to compel her to drive straight into a brick wall.  Assigned to treat her is psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law of Soderbergh’s CONTAGION), who medicates her with the latest trendy antidepressant, complete with the usual fine print, the kind that’s incomprehensibly rattled off in TV spots to meet legal obligations.   All good for awhile – Emily even gets her sex drive back – but then things take a horrifying turn when she commits a grisly crime.

Up to this point SIDE EFFECTS seems to be commenting on our overmedicated nation, where behavior-modifying drugs are prescribed like aspirin, and everyone’s taken their share, along with the attendant legal ramifications for patients, doctors, institutions and the pharmaceutical manufacturers who rake it in.    Then it gets complicated.   Was Emily “sleepwalking” thanks to the new drug when she committed the crime?   Does that make her, or Dr. Banks responsible?  Legal maneuvers get Emily committed to a hospital, but that leaves Banks suspected of complicity, accessory, and assorted malfeasance.   Were they having an affair?  Is it even the first time, Banks’ now suspicious wife (Vinessa Shaw) wants to know.

Now, just when we think Banks is the true villain of the piece,  we get “twisted” again.   Maybe not.  Maybe it has to do with Emily’s previous shrink, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who in Burns’ complex but careful, reveal-a-little-at-a-time script, goes from minor character to mystery woman.
Even apart from the aforementioned PSYCHO references, Banks starts looking like the classic Hitchcock protagonist, wrongly accused and fighting to clear his name and get to the bottom.   It comes to a satisfying conclusion, but you may feel compelled to see it again or study the future DVD release, to completely figure out how everything fits.

Restrained but always engrossing, SIDE EFFECTS is superbly acted down to the smallest bit role, but Mara, Law and Zeta-Jones are standouts.    Mara shines in the film’s most gripping scene, when she relives the crime after getting a “truth drug” injection from Law – or does she?  Pleasant surprise:  Polly Draper of TV’s “thirtysomething” as Emily’s boss. Soderbergh has been quoted as saying that this will be his last directing effort;  I hope, like most recent proclamations of this sort (from Eastwood, Tarantino, etc.), it’s just hype.

Contagion [Blu-ray]

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