REVIEW: Side Effects

21 08 2013

Steven Soderbergh may have saved the best for last with his supposed final theatrical release, the chillingly cerebral “Side Effects.”  A successful re-teaming with “Contagion” scribe Scott Z. Burns, the film recreates all the unnerving hysteria of the 2011 apocalyptic thriller on a much more micro scale.  Soderbergh, acting as his own editor and cinematographer (under false names), creates a cooly fluorescent-bulb lit environment in which a crazy tale of criminal insanity can realistically unfold.

In this setting, Burns’ cat-and-mouse tale takes on an eerie and haunting dimension. His script is full of unexpected twists and turns, rife with crossed alliances and false appearances, and topped off with plenty of intrigue from the fields of psychiatry and pharmaceuticals.  His “Side Effects” starts off thoroughly convincing us it’s one kind of movie … and then pulls the rug out from underneath us, ultimately leaving us with a surprisingly different end result.

The suspense is amplified by a finely-tuned cast of performers, led by a viciously versatile turn from Rooney Mara.  Her character, the moody Emily Taylor, is a character playing multiple games simultaneously.  She’s mad, moody, depressed, longing, conniving, and manipulative – often all at once.  Mara commands the screen with the same force as she did in her Oscar-nominated role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” although it’s a more quietly resolute performance that adds another layer of tension to an already taut film.

Side Effects

“Side Effects” does, however, begin to sag in its back half as the protagonist arguably changes to Jude Law’s Jonathan Banks, the doctor who sets the film in motion by prescribing the new drug Ablixa to an unstable Emily.  The bitter pill that is supposed to fix her depression winds up destroying Jonathan’s career and livelihood.  Rather than rolling over and playing dead, he decides to fight back, unraveling plots and schemes he wasn’t supposed to discover dating all the way back to Emily’s last shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The plot’s developments do eventually start heading into the realm of the ridiculous, but “Side Effects” retains its grip throughout since it is grounded in Mara’s fascinating character and Soderbergh’s technical control.  If this really was his last film to hit the silver screen, he certainly ended on a high note.  B+3stars


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