Tuesday, February 19, 2013

SIDE EFFECTS Is A Twisty, Hitchcock-Esque Thriller


- The less you know about Side Effects, the better. Well, to some extent. The marketing for the film - purportedly director Steven Soderbergh's final directorial effort - led me to believe that this would be a socio-political thriller in the vein of his earlier Contagion. But actually, this is something much different. Yes, elements of the film do offer a chilling look at the Big Pharma industry and our society's over-reliance on mood-altering prescription drugs. But Soderbergh isn't content to just create some sort of industry expose. What he does seem interested in is crafting a suspenseful, twist-filled thriller that calls to mind the films of Hitchcock and other masters of the genre. And so I say go into SIDE EFFECTS with an open-mind, and simply be aware that all is not as it seems.

The events that kick off the plot barely hint at what's to come, and Soderbergh is clearly enjoying toying with us and leading us down a particular narrative path, only to take some sharp right turns. As the movie begins, we meet Emily (Rooney Mara), a young woman soon to be reunited with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), now that he's finished a four-year stint in jail for insider trading. Emily is doing her best to re-acclimate to married life, but she is struggling. She's had a hard go of it over the last few years, and has struggled with depression and anxiety. When her husband returns, she is despondent and distant. And so, Emily begins seeing a well-regarded psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law) to try to improve her mental health. Banks is a good shrink, but he's also very much in bed with the Big Pharma companies that recruit people like him to distribute their latest anti-depression drugs. With a big payday coming his way from its manufacturers, Banks puts Emily on the new drug - called Ablixa. And, well ... that's where things start to get weird.

To say anymore about the plot would be to give too much away. But I got a lot of enjoyment from watching that rare film where I really had no idea what was coming - where the director seemed intent on pulling the rug from under us and subverting our expectations. It helps that Soderbergh does such a masterful job at ratcheting up the tension. The movie brims with an edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting intensity that rarely lets up. And Soderbergh keeps things chugging along at a solid clip - mixing the muted colors and windy-city urban environments of 70's thrillers with the claustrophobic, boxed-in vibe of old film noirs. What I also really liked was that the script by Scott Z. Burns keeps you guessing. For much of the film, even as new information is released, you're still not 100% sure who's lying, who we can trust, and who may just be out-of-their-mind. The movie, as it goes, invites theorizing and guessing games, and half the fun is trying to stay a step ahead of the film.

What does eventually derail things a bit is the sheer heights of craziness that the plot goes to. What starts out as a more straightforward film ends up going to some pretty weird, out-there places. And to accept some of the movie's more far-out turns requires some major, major suspension of disbelief. Suffice it to say, this is one where you'll be actively wondering just *how* everything fits together, and why certain things unfolded the way they did, or why certain characters acted in a certain way if it turns out that ________ was actually the case. All of the craziness does sort of stay in the tradition of the kind of left-field twists that Hitchcock was known for, but still ... it can all be a lot to swallow.

But what makes the film so eminently watchable are the rock-solid performances. Rooney Mara is the show-stealer as Emily. I'm not sure that many other actresses could have pulled off what Mara does here - playing a dark, multi-layered character who constantly keeps you guessing. Jude Law, on the other hand, really anchors the film. Although his character is, in some ways, unsympathetic, his maddening quest for the truth about Emily is what propels the movie forward. We're with him every step of the way. Law is one of those great actors who rarely seems to get a part of the quality he deserves - but here, he's got it. A really impressive, memorable performance - and the cat and mouse game that unfolds between him and Mara is uber-compelling - in large part thanks to these two talented actors. Those two carry the film, although Tatum is also quite good, as is Catherine Zeta-Jones - who is sort of a fun x-factor, as an enigmatic psychiatrist who Emily had consulted with prior to meeting Dr. Banks.

The movie is all tension and atmosphere - with Soderbergh delivering a real pot-boiler, made even better thanks to a couple of stellar performances. From the look and feel of the film, to the great, moody score, I really dug the movie's aesthetics. At times, it does walk a line between delivering great twists and going a bit too far for the sake of shock value. But mostly - if this is Soderbergh's final film - it's a testament to the director's mastery of genre and pacing, and his constant willingness to experiment and subvert audience expectations. For me, SIDE EFFECTS was a really cool surprise.

My Grade: B+

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