The release of the psychological thriller Side Effects brings with it good news and bad news. First the bad news. Director Steven Soderbergh has announced this is will be his last feature film. He’s retiring from moviemaking (I don’t believe it, or just refuse to believe it). Now the good news, we get the chance to see Rooney Mara in a more normal role, meaning someone (anyone) other than Lisbeth Salander. Yes she was in The Social Network but that one doesn’t really count.
I’ve looked forward to Mr. Soderbergh’s films ever since he gave us the provocative Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989. He has been prolific although sometimes uneven in quality. There are flashes of brilliance; King of the Hill, Out of Sight, The Limey and a sordid examination of the drug trade and the failed war against it in Traffic. Other outings have been great fun, the Oceans movies. One film that I feel is underrated is the slowly disturbing Solaris. In Side Effects he turns out a polished mind game that keeps you interested although you have every reason not to be.
Rooney Mara plays the quiet but obviously complicated Emily Taylor. A beautiful woman who had everything she ever wanted in life only to watch it vanish in a moment’s time as her husband (Channing Tatum) is convicted of insider trading. Ms. Mara plays a human puzzle without a compass. She gives us numerous physical looks and matches, or to be exact, surpasses them with a wider range of emotional dexterity. Once in a while you hear Lisbeth in her voice, but I must give her credit for successfully moving behind The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This woman has a bright future as an actress. Emily carves out a new life the best she can, trying her hand in a graphics design shop while fighting off depression. Her husband Martin is finally released and they try to reconnect and rebuild their lives.
Emily has trouble holding it together and purposely crashes her car into a concrete wall. This causes her to encounter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) in the emergency room after the incident. Out of professional concern, he wants to hospitalize her but is talked out of it. Actually Emily doesn’t say much. She just kind of stares and wiggles her way out of being admitted more so by what she doesn’t say. He prescribes pills and sets regular therapy sessions in his office. She has unpleasant reactions to the drugs and begins a disquieting bout of sleepwalking. During a session Dr. Banks learns of Emily’s prior therapist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and seeks her out at an ADHD convention. They discuss Emily and Dr. Siebert recommends he try a new (fictional) drug, Ablixa.
Ms. Zeta-Jones is all business. Jet black hair pulled back tightly behind her ears. Large black, non-designer glasses frame her classic face. The encounters between her and Mr. Law are quite good. I wish there had been more of them. Mr. Law has matured nicely from his younger days of Gattaca and The Talented Mr. Ripley. He has always been subtle, but in Side Effects he takes it to a new level.
What ensues is a series of carefully crafted scenes by Mr. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns in a manner aspiring to be Film Noir. It doesn’t get there but one has to admire the effort. They weave a tapestry of clues and lies, wrapping it all up in a complicated legal technicality. Each of the three characters have made decisions that cannot be undone. They become deeply entangled in each other’s fate all for very different reasons. Alliances are formed but no one expects the other one to keep their end of the bargain. It’s every man for himself in a high stakes game.
Thomas Newman’s soundtrack nails the mood of the film. You get the feeling that the characters are hearing that same music in their minds all throughout the picture, just like you. Another stellar outing for Mr. Newman who has collaborated with Mr. Soderbergh on prior films. Technical credits are solid but modest. Soderbergh’s camera is as fluid as always, gliding along but able to stop long enough to shape strong compositions amid the muted lighting which puts the audience in the proper visual mood.
The official film web site tries to break out of the boring template we usually see. It’s a vertical experience. Simple and interesting. Not particularly informative, but it has an excellent diversion. Be sure and click on the Ablixa link at the top of the site. If you follow the links far enough you can take a simple mental test administered by no other than Dr. Jonathan Banks who will ultimately recommend you take Ablixa. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Good fun.
Don’t go Steven!
Podcast Version of Side Effects
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Review of the American version.
Photo Credit: Open Road