Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language
Some thrillers are so convoluted that it’s almost impossible to discuss them without revealing twists and turns best left to be revealed in the watching. “Side Effects” is one such — the first act of the story can be mostly gathered from the previews and is fairly simple, but where the plot goes from there is packed with twists. In almost every way, this is a spot-on thriller, a commentary on mental illness, and a highly entertaining film.
The plot revolves around Emily (Rooney Mara), the pretty, delicate wife of Martin (Channing Tatum). Martin’s in jail for insider trading as the film starts, and about to get out. Emily is having trouble with anxiety and depression, and eventually begins seeing one Dr. Banks (Jude Law). When the old standbys don’t work, he consults her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and prescribes a new drug — with unexpected consequences.
There’s a lot to like about “Side Effects.” Its portrayal of depression and the difficulties of treating it is excellent — Mara is luminous and completely convincing, and the cinematography is muted, suggesting the flattening of colors and emotions that comes with profound depression. As Banks tries different medications and Emily struggles with side effects, anyone who’s dealt with psychiatric medication themselves or been close to someone who has will recognize the process.
It’s a slow build, and without the opening shots of bloody footprints and mysterious gifts (followed by the title: Three Months Earlier and the beginning of the story), it might be hard to hang in there. Cinephiles won’t have any trouble, though. Steven Soderbergh is a seasoned director, and he knows how to shape and shade his visuals to give them a depth and complexity that many other films lack. He has the advantage of working with a brilliantly-constructed script, one in which there are layers upon layers of plotting and conspiracy and corruption to be uncovered.
Where the film came crashing down for me was in its embracing of a collection of profoundly old, tired, and sexist tropes. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to avoid anything resembling spoilers! This film contains not only the old familiar evil bisexual woman, but also: a sane woman locked up in a mental ward and medicated against her will (and this is supposed to be a good thing), all strong women are evil and all good women are foolish and easily-manipulated, and even the strongest women are easily manipulated by a man once he’s onto their schemes. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen so many films over the years and am tired of the casual misogyny that runs rampant in Hollywood, but by the end of the film it was impossible for me to enjoy it. Spoilers over.
In short, if you’re sensitive to sexism you should probably avoid this film. If you don’t mind it, or aren’t particularly sensitized to it, and you like well-crafted psychological thrillers, don’t miss it.