Side Effects (2013)

Director:  Steven Soderbergh
Cast:  Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
Plot:  A young woman's world unravels when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects.

Genre:  Crime / Drama / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin)
Runtime:  106min
Rating:  M18 for sexuality, nudity, violence and language.

“Depression is the inability to construct a future.”

I am in love with Rooney Mara, but that doesn't mean that I will give Side Effects a high rating.  The latest by Steven Soderbergh is, for a lack of a better word, a bizarre affair, though it runs like a first-rate drama in the first half before over-complicating things in the second.

Soderbergh teams up with writer Scott Z. Burns again after the muted success of the biomedical thriller Contagion (2011) and the more likable The Informant! (2009), fashioning what is essentially a film about the perils of drug taking.  However, unlike Zemeckis' Flight (2012), which is about the perils of alcoholism, Side Effects doesn't portray its issues as entirely black-and-white.

This is a good thing because Soderbergh wants to make you think, rather than feel, about the circumstances that occur in the film.  These circumstances befall Mara's character, Emily, who has been taking medication for a number of years to treat her depression since her husband’s (Channing Tatum) arrest.

Emily’s husband is eventually released from prison, and all seems well, when in fact something serious is brewing underneath.  There is an ominous feeling of foreboding that hangs in the air, and this translates well visually as Soderbergh expertly uses the camera to create uneasy tension surrounding Mara’s character.

He literally controls the camera as the film’s cinematographer and I must say that most of his works have always been very well-shot, and in particular, well-lit.  Soderbergh has also been quite a keen observer of the connections, or lack of, between human relationships and many of his films feature a large ensemble cast, in particular the ‘Ocean’s’ trilogy and Contagion.

Side Effects also stars Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but it is the relationship between Law’s and Mara’s characters that proves to be central to the inner workings of the narrative. Mara gives the best performance of the lot and continues to impress after her incredible turn in Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

The issue I have with Side Effects is its ability to convince with its characters.  Like Contagion, Soderbergh gives the film a real-world sensibility which I liked, but the characters that adorn the picture are lacking in the right kinds of motivation, or sensibilities if you will.  The character motivations generally feel underwhelming, though not completely underdeveloped.

The over-complication of the narrative also dilutes the impact of the film, which could have been a tighter experience.  If this is going to be Soderbergh’s final feature, it feels neither here nor there.  I want to give the film 3.5 stars, but I shall stick with three.

Verdict:  Soderbergh's latest is immensely well-shot and takes a methodical approach to storytelling, but still falls short of being a first-rate dramatic thriller. 


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