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Review: Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects (2013)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Premise: A psychiatrist (Jude Law) finds his life turned upside down when a patient (Rooney Mara) commits murder while on a drug he prescribed.

What Works: Side Effects is a Steven Soderbergh film and it is consistent with other Soderbergh movies such as The Informant! and Erin Brockovich. Like those films, Side Effects is a human drama taking place at the intersection of law, business, and science and it manages to be both intellectually interesting but also dramatically engaging. This is fundamentally a murder mystery and the best mysteries consistently undermine the assumptions of the viewer, gradually unsettling what the audience believes to be true. This is risky because a clumsy filmmaker can undermine too much; the action can veer in directions that are tonally jarring or characters can be forced into unmotivated decisions. The filmmakers of Side Effects do it right by shifting the viewer’s understanding of the facts while keeping the characters and the tone of the movie consistent. The narrative has some very clever twists and turns and this is never a predictable film. Director Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns pull off a very impressive narrative trick: the false first act. Side Effects begins as a story about a couple struggling with the wife’s mental illness but after the murder the filmmakers pivot very skillfully from the wife to her psychiatrist and the rest of the movie plays on the tension between them. The film is elevated considerably by the performances of Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Mara is particularly good, bringing some of the same darkness and sophistication that she contributed to the 2011 version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The script requires a lot of her; the mystery hinges on Mara’s character and the actress plays the role in such a way that maintains the ambiguity. Jude Law is also impressive. His role could be a straightforward hero in the mold of someone like Tom Cruise in The Firm but Law and the filmmakers go for something more sophisticated. After the murder, his character finds his professional and personal lives turned upside down but the film keeps the viewer trying to deduce his culpability. And that is the element of Side Effects that is most impressive. The story deals in moral and ethical ambiguity and it plays very effectively on audience assumptions. In the early scenes Jude Law’s psychiatrist aligns himself with a pharmaceutical company, implying impropriety without ever decisively violating an ethical boundary. But once the murder mystery gets underway the picture sets Law’s character as the protagonist with law enforcement and other authority figures as antagonists. This is smart moviemaking; Soderbergh and his crew recognize the viewer’s expectations and use thriller clichés to pit the audience’s prejudices and expectations against each other. This opens up the film to more sophisticated ideas than the average murder mystery.

What Doesn’t: The conceit of Side Effects is a little ridiculous. Halfway through the film Jude Law begins to accuse Rooney Mara’s character of faking her mental illness. Whether this is the case or if Law’s character is just trying to get himself out of trouble is effectively ambiguous but the very possibility that she could fake her mental illness to this degree is not credible. The movie runs into further problems in the ending. Despite evading and manipulating murder mystery clichés throughout much of the movie, the conclusion has an absurd reveal that does not make much sense and the finale is too tidy. The uncertainty that characterizes the bulk of Side Effects calls for a more ambiguous ending than the one provided here. 

Bottom Line: Side Effects is a solid thriller. The movie unravels a little in its ending but overall it manages to be an entertaining mystery that is smarter and better made than a lot of Hollywood fare.

Episode: #429 (March 3, 2013)