Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Side Effects (2013) – Review

Review: Side Effects is a thriller that constantly manipulates audience expectations with each twist. The film is about Emily Taylor, a young woman that seems to be suffering from depression. Her husband Martin has just been released from prison. After an apparent suicide attempt, Emily is treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks who tries her on a number of medications before finding one that seems to work, however Emily begins to sleepwalk as a side effect. One evening Martin comes home to find Emily in the kitchen making dinner, but she is asleep. When he tries to wake her, she stabs him to death with a cutting knife. Who is to blame? Emily? Dr. Banks for keeping her on the medication? The drug company? But not all is as it seems. There are some spoilers in this review, best if you see the film first.

Director Steven Soderbergh is an intelligent filmmaker who understands storytelling, and what the audience expects given what a certain kind of narrative tells them – what they pick up consciously and subconsciously. With Side Effects, Soderbergh seems to be playing a game with the audience, constantly managing their expectations and changing their perception of the characters – which is really what the best ‘twist’ thrillers do: you think you know who the characters are and what is going on, but then everything changes.

Soderbergh also seems interested in raising concerns or questions about how depression is dealt with by the healthcare system in America (which is likely corporate run at this stage). Before the film starts to throw out plot and character twists, it seems to be a subtle (or maybe passively aggressive) attack on this system. Healthcare professionals just seem to drug their patients with whatever the latest pill is (or whichever they are being paid to promote) without really addressing the root cause of the depression. Just about every character in the film seems to be on something to help them manage (be it beta-blockers, anti-depressants, or sedatives). Emily experiencing grave side effects leading to a tragic death seems to call into question the whole system and who is at fault. Each participant in the system seems to be shifting the blame. While Soderbergh does not clearly attack the drug companies, doctors, or our society in which pill-taking is commonplace, the whole system and cycle feels dubious at best.

However, the film then shifts as Dr. Banks’s life falls apart, as he is left holding the short stick in the blame game. He desperately wants to find out what happened, feeling like he did not make a mistake. Soderbergh sets his struggle to find the truth up as a man driven mad by loss, grasping at straws, driving away the people in his life even more. His claims seem baseless and are getting more and more outlandish, as he thinks there is a conspiracy against him. The audience believes that Emily is the victim and Dr. Banks very well could be to blame (he seems like a corporate stooge at one point, taking money to peddle their drugs). Soderbergh has done something interesting here. The film begins and Emily is the protagonist. The audience connects with her struggle with depression, trying to cope with her life and the pressure of her husband’s return. Thus, Dr. Banks to some extent feels like the villain. He is too busy with his own life to really pay enough attention to his patient Emily, and thus made a mistake that cost her dearly. Then, he begins to make claims against her, naming her as the chief architect in the conspiracy against him. This turns him into even more of a villain, as again the audience is behind Emily. However, Soderbergh then starts to introduce cracks in Emily’s story and Dr. Banks seems like he might be making sense – maybe he is on to something. Suddenly, Soderbergh has changed the audience’s expectations. At first the film was a drama about Emily dealing with a tragic event and maybe and raising social issues about the pharmaceutical company/healthcare system relationship, and now it is a mystery that Dr. Banks is trying to solve with Emily as maybe the villain. It is not often that a film can have its protagonist and antagonist switch places without missing a beat.

Soderbergh continues to play with the audience as the film develops and their perception of the characters changes. The characters and what the audience thought the film was are completely different by the end. Ultimately the film plays as a thriller, as the narrative becomes a cat and mouse game between Emily and Dr. Banks. Soderbergh’s mastery of narrative filmmaking is essential to the film being fluid amidst all the plot twists and narrative tone changes. He structures the narrative to build, as more information is told to the audience.

However, this is a thriller without much action – setting it apart from a genre that seems to have become an offshoot of the action genre – in terms of explosions, gunplay, and physical altercations (as there are none, which I found refreshing). This is a thriller of wits (like the classic thrillers of old – The Third Man and Notorious to a couple from the 1940s). But, for some, it may play a little slow due to the lack of action (especially in the first half before things start to pick up with the plot twists).

Side Effects sees Soderbergh doing a lot with one film. It is somewhat a psychological thriller (as Dr. Banks feels his world slipping away), a drama about depression, a questioning look at the healthcare system (in regards to their management of patients with social issues and pharmaceutical companies’ role in the system), a character drama (as Emily and Dr. Banks are both well-conceived and developed), and a plot twist driven thriller. It is an entertaining film that engages the viewer’s mind as well. And, as it develops, Soderbergh’s storytelling ability reveals itself to be quite marvelous.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steven Soderbergh has announced that Side Effects will be his last film (at least for the next few years), as he plans to focus on television. It is a fitting way for him to go out, as it is one of his best films (especially from a narrative standpoint).

Soderbergh also shot the film, something he often does. The cinematography has a very stylized look, with soft focus and haloing lights. Matched with Howard Cummings’s production design, which is very much grounded in reality, it gives the film sort of a heighted sense (like not everything is as it seems). Thomas Newman’s score is also very good, perfectly fitting the tone shifts.

Like most of Soderbergh’s films, the cast is very good, giving very naturalistic performances. Channing Tatum has a small role as Martin (and used as a bit of a red herring), but it is important as his performance brings a lot of credibility to Emily (setting her up initially as the protagonist and victim). Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Emily’s former doctor. She plays her character to be seemingly powerful and confident, but really out of her depth and insecure. Jude Law is great in the film (Soderbergh gets very good work out of him – see Contagion). Law plays Dr. Banks and has a range of emotions he must go through over the course of the film. But what he does very well is make the audience believe that he is both the villain and the hero at different moments (which is vital to the film’s success). Rooney Mara continues to show herself as one of the great young talents in Hollywood right now. She is fantastic in the film. Emily seems initially completely vulnerable and weak, but as the film goes on it is all just a measured act (it reminds me of Edward Norton’s brilliant work in Primal Fear, though the revelation is not so grandiose in this film).

Summary & score: Side Effects is a good thriller, as it constantly changes the audience’s perception as it develops, built on great performances from its leads and nimble storytelling from its director. 8/10

1 comment:

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