Side Effects (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
A day after her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison, Emily (Rooney Mara) decides to crash her car onto a brick wall. While at the hospital, she, relatively unscathed, is approached by a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law). Instead of hospitalizing Emily for an obvious suicide attempt, they make a deal: twice a week they are to meet and work on her depression. At first, she is prescribed SSRIs, an antidepressant, but it makes her physically sick. Word has it that a better, newer drug called Ablixa works wonders so she requests to be put on it. Initially, the drug works: she is happier, her sex drive is back, and it is easier for her to tackle every day tasks. However, the drug does not seem to be as miraculous as it is shown on the TV commercials.
At least the picture begins with a genuine air of intrigue. Events that leave up to Emily’s request to take the magical Ablixa are rooted in reality. There is something scary and true about people hearing about a certain pill from a friend of a friend’s and then deciding from there that she, too, wants to be on that drug without doing much research about it. I enjoyed that the director, Steven Soderbergh, not once shows us that Emily is capable of going to Google to learn more about the drug. This an important piece of the puzzle.
To complement Emily’s constant state of gloom, a foggy, yellow-orange color is largely utilized in the first half. It is so heavy, I noticed that its tone had an impact on me. I began to feel lethargic–but not bored–and anxious. Partner this technique with many close-ups of a woman who is suffering in the mind and body, it is easy to believe that the protagonist is depressed, that she really does need an antidepressant, a powerful one, to help her to function normally. If we do not believe in her state of affliction, the rest feels like playing dress up.
However, the events that transpire in the second half are less rooted in reality, a compilation of uninspired typical thriller elements. We are subjected to one twist after another. I suppose those who have not seen very many thrillers will find it “brilliant.” After all, not much time is given for us to digest a reversal prior to the next one. But to me, it is simply trying too hard to appear smarter than it really is. After the second or third twist, I did not care about the story any longer. Instead, I anticipated the next curveball, wondering if I could outsmart it. And I did. So I suppose it is, in a way, predictable.
The performances are solid all around. I especially enjoyed Law’s performance as a doctor who means well. There is an arrogance to Dr. Banks that the actor highlights only slightly, but it is there. Combined with his eventual state of desperation and fear of losing everything he has worked so hard to attain, we end up questioning his true motives. Meanwhile, Mara holds her own. At this point, I am used to seeing her playing mysterious characters so that spell she casts has become a product of diminishing returns. But it is Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Emily’s former psychiatrist, who piqued my interest most. She portrays her character like a wall, so cold and difficult to read.
Written by Scott Z. Burns, “Side Effects” might have been a better movie if its tone had adapted to its mood. The first half is serious and curious while the second half is devious and, in its core, silly. There is a heavy-handed self-seriousness throughout. As a result, only half of it works. We are not welcomed into taking pleasure from the delivery of the supposedly powerful left hooks.