18 March 2013


It's not often that we get to bust out "Hitchcockian" in relation to a new cinema release, but Side Effects has qualities of the master's work that extend even to its marketing. Given how it comes from Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns, who collaborated on Contagion, you might expect that this is a companion piece, doing for medication what the earlier film did for pandemics. You'd be wrong.

Emily Taylor has been suffering from depression while her husband, Martin, serves a four-year jail term for insider trading, and initially seems overjoyed at his release. Soon after, however, she drives her car into a wall, in an apparent suicide attempt. Dr. Jonathan Banks is the psychiatrist assigned to treat her, and he's drawn to trying out a new antidepressant, Ablixa. At first, this seems to help, but as the title suggests, there are some side effects to this treatment. You might think that gives you a better idea of the full picture. You'd be wrong.

See, here's one film for which you should really avoid reviews that give away the plot. Side Effects is a near-masterpiece of its genre, and a lot of the enjoyment comes from watching how the perfectly structured script teases out its own true nature over a large section of the running time. If you were drawn to this one from the trailers, then the film that you might expect plays out over the first half hour or so, but then it does a 90 degree turn, and becomes something else. That's not even the only turn of its kind in the film, and the result is refreshingly unpredictable.

Even though that first half hour seems slowly paced in hindsight, when compared with what follows, there's not a bit of flab on it. In one crucial scene, Jude Law's Dr. Banks is brought in to talk to a Haitian man in police custody, and has to explain to the cops that the man is suffering from delusions brought on by grief. This has massive significance in the second act, or at least, you're meant to think that it does. It's tough to relate the actual experience of watching it unfold, except to say that Law's performance is one of the many crucial parts of what makes the film so successful.

Law is top-billed because he is really the protagonist, even though we start out in Emily's perspective. As the damaged young woman, Rooney Mara is probably the most valuable player in the cast. While Law gives a great, relatable performance, playing against the smarmy type that followed him around until a few years ago, the film literally hinges upon Mara's role, and she's excellent. Catherine Zeta Jones is sinister as Emily's former therapist, and Channing Tatum continues to be the most unlikely great discovery that Soderbergh has ever made.

As ever, it's partly because Soderbergh is so prolific and so consistently good at what he does, that it's difficult to talk about what he brings to Side Effects. However, this one is significant in the director's canon because it's apparently going to be his last theatrical film. If that's true, then it's definitely not a bad film to go out on. However, this is a film by a director who's not even close to running out of steam, so don't be surprised if he comes back- perhaps he'll just take a break instead. For now, it only remains to say that this film is fit to burst with little quiet moments that leave you in awe, and that's the sign of a master at work.

Side Effects is nothing so similar to Contagion, and its clever, unpredictable plot makes it the best film of the year so far. As an actor's director, Soderbergh's cast are as brilliant as usual, but it's Jude Law and Rooney Mara who deserve special notice, for actually developing and adapting their performance in perfect sync with the film's myriad twists and turns throughout, but remaining consistent in a way that's sure to review a second viewing, once you've puzzled it all out. This is the first real must-see movie of 2013, and a real stand-out, even amongst Soderbergh's huge amount of work in recent years.

Side Effects is still showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen
Side Effects, why not share your comments below? That's my allotted annual use of the word "Hitchcockian"- if anything as good comes along this year, I'll have to dream up an alternative. Suggestions welcome!
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: