REVIEW: Side Effects [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: February 8th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Open Road Films
Director(s): Steven Soderbergh
Writer(s): Scott Z. Burns

“I killed the wrong person”

Some people will go to great lengths to get their lives back and Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects shows how far. It’s a crime thriller written by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns about a young woman named Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) and the beginning of what should be a brand new chapter of her life that will hopefully mirror the one before her husband was imprisoned four years for insider trading. Finally released, Martin (Channing Tatum) promises to make up for lost time and ensure his wife will never have to live like a middle class woman again. But the prospect of change is too much for her mind to take and depression from a miscarriage shortly after he went inside comes back while a suicide attempt lands her in the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).

Desperate to regain her center and be there for her husband, she agrees to do everything Dr. Banks says. Things begin to escalate out of his control quickly, however, causing him to visit with her prior shrink Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in order to get a handle on exactly what went on in her past. Drug names are bandied around as one in particular gains traction for its somewhat ubiquitous nature. It’s a new anti-depressant named Ablixa that does seem to help Emily even out besides some weird, non-responsive sleepwalking episodes. Unfortunately, one of those is occurring when Martin arrives home to find her comatosely chopping vegetables for a three-person dinner. His intrusion earns two quick jabs in the gut and one in the back before Emily climbs into bed while he bleeds out on the floor.

This all transpires during the first half of the film, allowing us time to meet and build our impressions of Emily and Banks while watching their day-to-day with spouses and work eventually overlapping in a panicked cry for help. She suggests the Ablixa, he prescribes it on a colleague’s recommendation, and they both sit back to let what happens occur. Unlike the trailers alluding to some wrongdoing on Banks’ behalf, though, what follows is standard courtroom drama and lone wolf investigating with him proving as much a victim as Emily to the media frenzy surrounding them. I kept waiting for him to turn to the dark side, but he genuinely wants to help her as the consummate overachieving professional he is. Saving her isn’t just his job—it’s his duty.

Things aren’t so clean-cut once all he held dear begins to dissolve in the fallout. So just as Emily tried to reclaim the life she lost for four solitary years, Dr. Banks now must defend his actions as a medical practitioner to patients, partners, and his wife in order to sustain his. But as more questions are posed and facts overturned in his memory, he descends into a rabbit hole of half-truths and new discoveries that render every interaction with Emily less than innocent. The kinds of revelations you’d expect soon present themselves with a few intriguing wrinkles that bring more flash than substance on Burns behalf, yet Soderbergh handles it all with a deft hand by adding some nice suspense as Banks’ digging uncovers how wrong he’d been from the start.

To say much more about the second half would be ruining the fun, but know that both Mara and Law are up to the task of rising above the pulpy and clichéd double-crossings that crop up between them. She is utterly damaged and sympathetic throughout the ordeal, desperate to understand what she did and full of remorse for the deed itself. He is fully committed to helping due to constant chatter about his own role in the homicide causing him to worry about possibly being accidentally burned in her wake. And all the while you can’t help notice the not so subtle commentary on American drug culture and pharmaceutical power with everyone met having an opinion because they’re all taking something too. Thankfully, Side Effects sticks to its road of entertaining thriller rather than one of socio-political soapboxing.

Each of the three leads—Law, Mara, and Zeta-Jones—show their true colors and the importance of self-preservation by the end with all possessing a secret behind the careful personas they’ve cultivated for themselves. Each has an inner strength and confidence that they’re the smartest person in the room, but while it might be right at one moment or another, one must never count out the surprise factor provided by being underestimated. As soon as you feel you’ve won, the gas pedal rises ever so slightly until your adversary is able to squeeze in for payback. Sometimes your victim was specifically chosen and sometimes he/she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the latter is true the party being wronged always has unpredictability on his/her side to wrest back control.

Even more than reclaiming one’s life, Side Effects is about control. Every time you think someone will buckle under the pressure of an opponent showing the upper hand, he or she finds the mettle to resiliently stand tall and effortlessly turn the tables. The result is a rousing nailbiter whose beats may not be wholly original, but whose twists and turns captivate nonetheless. Its finale may be overly ostentatious in a sort of supervillain versus supervillain kind of way, but it somehow works once we readjust who our hero is. The tools to working everything out are glaringly prevalent throughout, but don’t try too hard to crack the case early. Doing that only causes you to miss the nuance beneath its otherwise thick layers of artifice—something needed for the character’s transformations to be one hundred percent effective.

[1] Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor and Channing Tatum stars as Martin Taylor in Open Road Films’ Side Effects (2013)
[2] Jude Law stars as Jonathan Banks in Open Road Films’ Side Effects (2013)
[3] Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Dr. Victoria Siebert in Open Road Films’ Side Effects (2013)

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