Thursday, 4 April 2013

Side Effects

Kill Pill

Side Effects
USA 2013
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: This review has big spoilers right from the outset. It’s the only way I felt I could say something even remotely interesting about this film and so I would urge you, if you know absolutely nothing about this movie but are considering seeing it, to go into the movie totally blind and then maybe read my review after you’ve seen it. 

So I quite like Steven Soderbergh as a director... ever since I saw Sex, Lies and Videotape when it came out at the cinema, many years ago. He also made an absolute genius movie called The Limey, which is a bit of a cinematic masterpiece and I do generally like his stuff (I reviewed his film The Girlfriend Experience starring porn legend Sash Grey here) but, just so we’re clear, I will never forgive him for trying to remake Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which is like trying to remake Casablanca or Star Wars in terms of sheer audacity. Leave the classics alone!

Anyway, I went into Side Effects knowing absolutely nothing about the movie. I think I may have seen a trailer which was quite disjointed and, I think, didn’t really make clear the kind of movie it was... and I’m glad that was the case because about half way through the movie I realised my stupid suspicions about the main female protagonist were actually right and the movie turned into something completely different to the way it was being presented.

The film is very slow paced and well designed, as you would expect from this director. He chooses to use a mixture of different shooting styles and edit them all together very cleverly into something that works and builds a mood or “vibe” which then becomes what the film is about as much as any linear plotting... much the same, in some ways, as Danny Boyle often does these days (see my review of Boyle’s latest, Trance, here) but not going for the high energy in-your-face kind of montages that Boyle does.

Starting off with what is, in fact, a crime scene... we see pools of drying blood on the floor of an apartment and then the film flashes back three months from this point. A point it catches up to about a third of the way through the movie (much earlier than I was expecting). Because the subject matter of the film focuses on a very depressed young woman who, when her husband gets out of prison for insider trading, tries to kill herself... Soderbergh manages to misdirect his audience quite skilfully with his usual modus operandi of “fly-on-the-wall” style recording of scenes into thinking that the bloody floors seen at the opening are connected to a successful suicide attempt by the young lady in question (played really well by Rooney Mara). But, as the film slowly winds on and we get to meet some of the other principle characters, like Jude law playing the young psychiatrist who takes on Rooney Mara’s character Emily as a patient, and Catherine Zeta Jones who plays her previous doctor, Victoria Siebert, we gradually find out that people we thought were minor players are actually main characters in an actual storyline (as opposed to just a series of observations on the nature of depression) and this starts to drum home as we see the person who everyone expects is the male lead, Channing Tatum as Emily’s husband, viciously stabbed by Emily while she is in a somnambulistic trance (in a sequence not quite as extreme but certainly not unlike the classic stab mayhem sequence which marks the first killing in Brian De Palma’s original version of Sisters). Although, by now, I’d begun to pick up on the trick of the way things were going to go I still heard the audience I was sitting in the cinema with on this gasp as this scene went down... so Soderbergh really played that one right, I reckon.

My suspicions were already up by now but the movie continues to play out for a while with this sequence just being another side effect of the new drugs Jude Law’s character has prescribed for Emily... but then things started to go the way I had suspected they might and the film turns into a proper thriller of a movie with a very long lineage which traces it back at least as far as 1940s American film noir and the likes of such movies as Double Indemnity and its many retreads.

Jude Law’s character, Dr. Jonathan Banks, has been made a patsy by two of the characters and as a result is ostracised by his community, loses most of his income and even loses his wife and child as more pressure is put on him. However, this is where things get interesting as the lone, obsessive figure everyone thinks he has become (which he has) fights back using the tools of his trade and starts to play off the two antagonists together, getting something a little too much more than justice and perhaps, when his final triumph comes, acting just as badly as the two villains of the piece.

I really can’t say much more about the movie in terms of plotting in case you are still reading this and are going to go see the movie... but what we have here is a brilliantly realised film which begins by approaching the material in a less direct and more observational, “untainted-by-any-emotional-or-judgemental-agenda” kind of way, and because the director makes this choice, the film really sucker punches you (even if you are, like I was, vaguely suspicious that there is more going on here than at first meets the eye) and kicks up the tension notch after notch until it gets you to the place you’re kind of, for the most part, hoping it will go. Most of the film you will probably be rooting for Jude Law’s character but he too, leaves a nasty aftertaste in the mouth at the end and ultimately this is one of those bleak noirs where you realise that, everyone to an extent, is a bad person.

Performances by the actors and actresses, as they always are in a Soderbergh movie, are excellent and this is also to be expected with such strong leads. I think I don’t speak falsely when I say that time will probably be very kind to this movie and I would expect it to be written about ad nauseum over the years and included as a key contribution on most major studies of the thriller/noir in film on most curriculums within the next ten or fifteen years. An unexpected delight and certainly worth the time of any cinephiles with a particular bent towards that kind of cinema.


  1. Although some of its twists and character relationships could be developed more clearly, the movie still comes through as a surprisingly engrossing thriller with fantastic turns from the whole cast. Nice review.

    1. Hi there.

      I think the whole point is that it is experienced without any strong bias from the camera eye and that the relationships are something you just get a sense of. I kind of liked that distance on things.

      Thanks, as always, for reading and taking the time to comment.

      All the best.

  2. I'm not much of a Soderburgh enthusiast, but this sounds terrific. Cheers.

    1. Well, all I can say to that is... if you haven't seen THE LIMEY then you owe it to yourself to change that fact immediately. That one in particular is just amazing!

      Thanks for reading. ;-)