Written by Zac Platt.
Side Effects has enough interesting material to explore to be a truly memorable thriller, unfortunately director Steven Soderbergh’s approach is claustrophobic and unfocussed.
The first half of Side Effects explores Emily’s (Rooney Mara) depression and the consequences of medicating it. This story plateaus with the murder of her husband (Channing Tatum) while she is in drug-induced autopilot. This is where Soderbergh’s clinical approach works best. As Emily drifts numbly through the films first act, so too does the audience. I was right there with her as she stared off blankly in the subway station, flirting with suicide as she unceremoniously edged closer to the platform’s edge. Even more effective is the night of the murder, where this aloofness combines with Emily’s unpredictability to fill you with suspense from the moment Martin walks through the door.
The disconnect Soderbergh creates is introduced quickly and is maintained throughout the entire film. Unfortunately, doing so establishes it as the norm and dilutes any of the empathy it awards for Emily by sharing it with the film’s second half, where it never really fits. Here the plot shifts to Emily’s psychiatrist, Jonathan (Jude Law), as he works to uncover the conspiracy surrounding the murder.
While unravelling the mystery was enjoyable, the reveal was underwhelming and not nearly enough to justify the filmmaker’s clear indifference in telling those early parts of the story. It’s also a little frustrating that the journey towards the film’s resolution begins with the conspiracy’s discovery almost half way in.
Jude Law is excellent. It feels natural as he subtly teases at his frustration and sense of defeat. Sadly, this is over far too soon and it’s here that the film begins to lose its credibility. Jonathan’s transformation from a suffering paternal figure to an unsympathetic and dickish detective (complete with a wall covered in newspaper clippings and photographs) is laughably quick, and is the first of many logic leaps the film requires in its final act.
The motivations of the conspirators are about as unimagined as possible and the relationships between these characters make less sense the further we explore. As with Law, the cast all do an admirable job (especially Mara who carries some of the films best moments) but their characters all become so unbelievable that the plot is rendered almost moot. The conclusion makes little to no sense when you begin to apply logic to how it could have come together.
Much of the story moves forward in bullet points, each one offering a plot point before cutting immediately to the next. The film is further compressed by audio overlapping almost every transition and an over reliance of close-ups. The result is that Side Effects doesn’t allow for any room to breathe, and becomes less a movie constructed with scenes than a collage of snapshots from a story that you can see laid out, but never really experience.
Side Effects is definitely not a total loss. There are plenty of great moments peppered throughout this film. But in a thriller like this, the audience should be rewarded for thinking retrospectively and putting together the puzzle. Instead, the closer you look, the more evident it becomes that neither Soderbergh or writer Scott Z. Burns put the necessary care into making this into anything worth remembering.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10