Some movies start with a bang. Others lure you into their worlds with craft and precision. Before you know it, you are just as paranoid as the characters. Anything could be lurking around the corner, over your shoulder, and no one is who they say they are. The mistake we as an audience will make is that we believe whatever the characters tell us. We can be easily duped. Side Effects lure us into a very tangled web that will eventually ensnare us.
A crane shot moves through the city to a building, and then to a window, and into an apartment. There are bloody footprints on the floor. The camera settles on a model sailboat. Was there a struggle over this sailboat? Does the sailboat represent something lost, another Rosebud? This floating camera is important because it establishes our perspective. The camera floats, looking for something or someone to watch. Our protagonist will shift a few times in this movie, and the camera floats between the characters looking for someone or something to focus on. The movie will end with a similar camera move, starting at a window and eventually floating back up high in the sky.
A title card reads “Three Months Earlier,” Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is visiting her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) in prison. He was taken in for insider trading and is almost out. Emily has been the model of the faithful wife, standing by him, waiting for him to get out so that they can build their life together. We will later learn that Martin was very successful in what he did, and it afforded him to act like Prince Charming. He taught Emily how to sail and ski. He bought her a beautiful Maserati for their wedding day. He affords her all the comforts that a girl could want. As Emily says, “He swept me off my feet.” He is the perfect man, not because he was kind, or funny, or smart, or good-looking, but because he is rich. If Emily’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), was listening properly, he might have caught this. But, Banks is a very well-to-do Manhattan psychiatrist. He probably hears this tale of financial attraction frequently.
Martin gets out of jail and is upbeat about their future. Why he was inside, he met a guy that runs a hedge fund, has money in Dubai, and knows how to make some money in Texas. They attend a party for appearance’s sake and some crucial networking, but Emily simply can’t handle it. It looks like the four years when Martin was gone have taken their toll. We sympathize with her because it’s understandable that for someone who had everything and lost it all would be depressed. If only Martin knew what she was going through. Then one day, Emily drives her car into a concrete wall.
The perspective shifts and the camera floats the halls of a hospital to find its next subject. Notice the way the camera creeps around the door frame and into an interrogation room where we find Dr. Banks. As we watch him work, we learn that he is intelligent, confident, and capable. The hospital he is working at also happens to be the one where Emily was taken after her accident. Emily was wearing her seat belt during the crash, and the airbags saved her from any injuries beyond bruising. Originally, Blake Lively was cast to play the role of Emily, but here Rooney Mara’s coquettish nature, her frailty, adds to the performance. A beautiful little girl with alabaster skin, she is more like a China Doll than a woman. Dr. Banks agrees to release her as long as she agrees to see him for regular treatment. Sexual tension is not obviously present, yet we feel that it is.
Emily sees Banks for treatment, and he tries a various cocktail of pills to cure Emily of her depression. Nothing really works, and Emily requests that she be put on Ablixa, the new miracle drug. It was recommended to her by a friend, and it is somehow deemed more worthy than a professional’s advice. Think of how many times a co-worker, a friend, that guy at the bar offered medical advice with absolutely no qualifications to back it up. Think of how many times you have argued with a doctor over what you think the right treatment is. Where does this come from? Dr. Banks just so happens to be involved with researching Ablixa (for a tidy sum) and eagerly puts Emily on it. Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), acknowledges that there is benefit in putting patients on the latest miracle drug. Patients see commercials on TV, they see billboards of happy people on the drug, and it gives them a sense of confidence. Chemicals don’t work nearly as well as advertising does.
Ablixa is a miracle drug. Emily feels better, actually has enjoyable sex with her husband, and claims to be able to sleep. There is just one side effect, which causes her to sleepwalk. She sets the table and turns the music on in the middle of the night, and Martin is helpless to stop her. He is against the drug, but it works for her, so Ablixa it is. Then Martin comes home from work to find her sleepwalking again. She has set the table for three and is slicing a red bell pepper in the kitchen. Martin goes to wake her, and she stabs him with the knife twice in the stomach and once in the back. He falls to the floor, choking and gasping for help, and bleeds to death while Emily stands over him in a trance. She walks back to bed.
Martin’s murder happens about a third of the way into the film, and it is a shocking moment. It is handled quickly and suddenly. There is a real fear felt that we are not in control of our actions and maybe not even responsible for their consequences. Emily is put on trial, but she takes a plea bargain to enter a mental hospital. Dr. Banks argues that Emily was not of sound mind or sound consciousness when she committed the act. Therefore, she should not be held responsible for it. Emily goes to a mental institution, Dr. Banks’s family life and career start to unravel, and Ablixa is no longer the pharmaceutical breakthrough. Dr. Banks pleads his case to his peers and partners, but the message is clear: he should have seen this coming. Everything is fine until it isn’t, and someone has to take the blame. The good doctor is to be the fall guy.
There is a Kafka-esque quality to Banks’s downfall. Maybe he should have seen it coming. Maybe there wasn’t a chance that he could. Banks starts to unravel and go mad with paranoia, convinced that he had been set up on purpose. This was all a giant conspiracy, and he fell into it. People who believe in conspiracies are always deemed paranoid. The rest of the movie involves a series of twists and turns that are best left to Soderbergh and his filmmaking team to reveal. The less you know, the easier it is to go along.
For the first third of Side Effects, the performances and framing are reminiscent of Robert Bresson films: static, emotionless, cold, observational. There is a scene toward the end of the second act where Banks stares at a wall of information and reflects on various pieces of information. Cutting, flashback, static images of a face show Soderbergh’s ability to incorporate film theory, especially that of Lev Kuleshov, into a thriller movie. Side Effects will no doubt be compared to some of Hitchcock’s best work, and rightly so. The crane shot that opens and closes Side Effects seems to quote the opening of Psycho (1960), as does the shock and quickness of Martin’s murder. Dr. Banks has more in common with Henry Fonda’s plight in The Wrong Man (1957) than he does with Cary Grant in North By Northwest (1959) or Robert Donat in The 39 Steps (1935). One of the most telling lines of dialog spoken in Side Effects could apply to the above-mentioned movies as well, “We didn’t pick you. We just looked at the world.”
It’s still too simplistic to say that Side Effects is part Bresson, part Hitchcock, part medical drama. Soderbergh has always been a unique voice in American filmmaking. It is a shame that he is hanging up his gloves and moving on to something else. His last project, Behind the Candelabra, a bio-pic about Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his lover, Scott Thornson (Matt Damon), was deemed too sexually graphic and will be released on HBO later this year. Then he’s done. In an interview with Mary Kaye Schilling, Soderbergh spoke about his retirement, “The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere. But that could just be my form of theism.” He says that he wants to paint, and good for him if that makes him happy. Consider his contemporaries: Kevin Smith has two projects left in him, and then he is moving on to focus on his podcast empire, and Quentin Tarantino wants to make a couple more movies before he gives it up to write novels. I guess that Soderbergh was responsible for blazing the trail for The Sundance Kids and American Independent cinema of the 1990s, and now it looks like the Pied Piper is leading them back out. As Roger Ebert said, “Soderbergh came, he saw, he conquered, and now he’s moving on.”
Side Effects (2013)
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Scott Z. Burns
Produced By: Scott Z. Burns, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Gregory Jacobs
Starring: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ann Dowd
Open Road Films, Running Time 106 Minutes, Rated R, Released February 8, 2013.