Soderbergh’s Swan Song:
Big Pharma as the Ultimate MacGuffin
Steven Soderbergh’s last feature before his retirement from the movies (he'll still do theater and TV) is a milestone psychological thriller comparable to Hitchcock’s best work. Operating with a deft screenplay by recent collaborator Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion”), Soderbergh works the suspense-driven narrative through fits of satire and protagonist switcheroos that keep the audience off-balance until the film’s final revelation.
A master of mood, the filmmaker who broke the independent film standard open in 1989 with his provocative “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” takes advantage of expressive lighting and Dutch camera angles to draw the viewer into lead character Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) depression. Like Hitchcock, Soderbergh guides the audience where he wants us to focus. First he earns our trust. Then he shows us that what we think we know is a lie. Next he imposes an emphasis, where we are allowed to believe even more strongly in new assumptions we are led to buy into. Layers of ambiguity fill “Side Effects” like in a carefully crafted crime novel. For what it's worth, Soderbergh deserves brownie points for crafting one of the best trailers in recent memory. Nothing is given away.
Emily’s hunky husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is freshly out of prison for insider trading, yet nothing can keep Emily’s blues at bay. A troubling “accident” puts Emily in the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). No other actor would have been better cast to play a character as fraught with ethical challenges and simmering inner turmoil. Dr. Banks puts Emily on an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor); sadly the pills fail to achieve their desired effect of quelling her suicidal, and even homicidal, thoughts.
The movie raises ethical questions about how pharmaceutical companies market, test, and sell their wares. The film’s title sets up expectations about undesirable symptoms that can lead to death. But what begins as a diatribe against Big Pharma morphs into a battle of wits between Dr. Banks and his strangely motivated patient.
Here is a film that plays two thematic sides against the middle. Caught in a spiraling depression, Emily is a victim of her own mind. She is desperate and unpredictable. Her family-man doctor is caught up in his own struggle to stay above water financially by taking on more patients and by whoring himself out participate in high-paying clinical trials for new mind-altering meds with unknown side effects. Both characters are working an imperfect system to benefit their own agendas. Big Pharma’s position as one of the biggest profit-producing models operating under modern capitalism naturally makes it subject to all kinds of blind angles for opportunists of various stripes to make their fortunes. Causalities are of little concern until the media gets involved.
Catherine Zeta-Jones turns in an impressive bit of acting as the last shrink to look after Emily before Dr. Banks takes over. There are plenty of twists and surprises in “Side Effects” to keep you guessing. The first real movie of 2013 has arrived. Repeated viewings may be necessary.
Rated R. 105 mins. (A) (Five stars - out of five/no halves)