Review: Side Effects (2013)


Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects skillfully manipulates our expectations about genre and our sympathies for its characters. It deftly moves from domestic drama, to social thriller, to murder mystery, to cynical revenge drama, all the while unsettling us with Thomas Newman’s creepy psychological horror score, which recalls Rosemary’s Baby. This is the kind of thriller that’s so good I was smiling when I shouldn’t be. Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) just got out of prison for insider trading, but Emily (Rooney Mara) is still depressed. After a suicide attempt, Emily is ordered to meet with Dr. Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who is only too ready to prescribe, especially when he enjoys the kickbacks from clinical trials. Nothing seems to work for Emily, but after consulting with her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Banks decides to try the new antidepressant Ablixa. The wonder drug seems to do miracles for Emily, but with one side effect—sleepwalking—which soon leads to a calamitous event.

Spoiler Warning! This is the sort of film that is a pleasure to see unfold onscreen, so I won’t say anything more without a warning: if you want to enjoy all the twists and turns, read no further. But after you watch Side Effects, do come back, read my analysis, and tell me what you think.

Now about that musical score. At first, the creepy music, with its psychological horror associations, leads us to believe that Emily is really loosing it. The music encourages us to accept what turn out to be her deceptions. As the film progresses, the unsettling score comes to suggest that something is deeply wrong with medical and pharmaceutical institutions, which seem to be largely driven by profits and self-interest. At the end of film, the music underscores the terrible irony of Emily’s situation: she is institutionalized against her will because she is thought to be mentally unstable, which is exactly what she tried to encourage everyone to believe for most of the movie. However, the unsettling score also undercuts our satisfaction at seeing the wrongdoer punished.

As I mentioned earlier, Soderbergh redirects the film’s focus and our sympathies throughout. As the title suggests, the cause-and-effect narrative progresses not only forwards in time, but also sideways. Our attention is shifted from plotline to plotline, from character to character. For example, the domestic drama between Emily and Martin remains entirely unresolved with Martin’s death, but the film transfers our interests soon after to Banks’ marital conflict, which is ultimately resolved. Likewise, Soderbergh displaces our initial disapproval of Banks’ inordinate motivation to make money as a psychiatrist onto Siebert when her deeply unscrupulous plotting surfaces. Banks’ punishment midway is eventually lifted and transferred to Siebert and Emily. However, the final events generate both fulfillment and dissatisfaction. Emily is punished, but Banks escapes final punishment for his dishonesty, and we witness the system’s ability to crush an individual if those with power decide to do so.

The difficulty of the social thriller genre is that thrillers typically demand that wrongdoers are punished, whereas potent social criticism requires that the corruption in the social institutions and authorities portrayed not be entirely cleaned up in the movie. If everything is fixed, there is less desire for change once the film is over. Through his manipulation of our sympathies and expectations, Soderbergh has crafted a rare social thriller that is ultimately able to both satisfy our expectation to see the offenders punished while leaving us still feeling unhappy with the system.

8 out of 10

Side Effects (USA, 2013)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Scott Z. Burns; starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum.