Side Effects (2013)

Poster for Side Effects

This is a sort of moebius strip of a movie, which is continuously reversing our understanding of what’s happening and ends up in something like the same place it began, at least visually. The starting point is Emily (Rooney Mara, who played Lisbeth Salander in the American The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who greets her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) when he gets out of prison after serving a four year sentence for insider training. They prepare to restart their life together, but it turns out that Emily is suffering from debilitating depression. She begins to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Banks (Jude Law), and he puts her on a series of anti-depressants. When he consults with Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), she recommends a new drug named Ablixa, but when Emily tries it the side effects are very strange, including sleep walking.

From there the film moves into increasingly strange and disorienting territory, and I won’t give away any more of the plot. I found the middle part of the film great fun as it kept me off-balance, unable to predict where things were going. At the end, however, I was left feeling, “That’s it?” The very final scene was so straightforward that I didn’t believe my eyes and kept thinking I hadn’t understood it. And maybe I didn’t understand it, in a way. The stinger in the end was not at all what I was expecting, and the implications are actually pretty nasty now that I meditate on them further. I think part of what Soderbergh is playing with is how we understand the morality of what the various characters are doing as their fortunes rise and fall. That’s part of what gets reversed and re-reversed as the narrative spools out. Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Maybe there is no good guy, despite the way things are framed.

This makes me curious to see it again, actually. The first time through I was completely engaged with it visually and in the way the story is conveyed visually — the way that the visuals give us more information than the words do, and the way that the viewpoint shifts both within individual scenes and in the sense of who the viewpoint character of the narrative is — who we identify with — over the course of the film. But then the final sequence seems to explain everything too neatly, and that really threw me off and made me question the value of the exercise. Now I’m wondering whether the neatness of the explanation was in fact a kind of head fake that fooled me into taking my “eye” off the moral ball.

This is supposedly Soderbergh’s final film. He says he’s going to turn to painting now. I’ve been cool to his films for many years, although I did like sex, lies and videotape (1989) back in the day. I liked Erin Brockovich (2000) but didn’t think much of Out of Sight  (1998) or his Oscar winner, Traffic (2000). I found the Oceans movies kind of repulsive. But Contagion  was one of my favorite films of 2011, and I really liked Haywire (2011) too. Suddenly I seemed to be on Soderbergh’s wavelength, and while I didn’t like Magic Mike (2012) as much as the previous two, I was still intrigued enough to go back and watch The Girlfriend Experience (2009) on Netflix Instant and found it pretty fascinating. These later films, including Side Effects, seem to be pretty astute commentaries on the systems of the modern world and how we inhabit them and are informed by them. Side Effects looks at the financial world of hedge funds and insider trading, psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry, prisons and tabloid journalism and paranoid conspiracy theories and the American dream, all while smoothly flowing through the Hitchcockian motions of a thriller plot that seems to change genres like a chameleon. I don’t know if it’s going out on a high point — and Soderbergh still has a Liberace biopic for HBO in the pipeline (Christ, is Michael Douglas really playing Liberace in that?!!!!) — but it’s certainly evidence that he’s learned some chops since 1989. Maybe we can look forward to a reunion tour in ten years or so.

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