Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)


For its duration, even as the focus not-so-subtly transitions completely from Rooney Mara to Jude Law, this is an unnerving, uncomfortable portrait of depression, and to a lesser extent a critique of our miracle pill-popping culture. Lesser, because the film deemed it necessary to shove it down its audience’s throat. Granted, the main players in the story are cogs of this industry, so obviously they’d be talking shop, but when every other word out of the mouths of Jude Law’s Dr. Banks and his colleagues in both medicine and the business side of pharmaceuticals concerns this funny-named antidepressant or that, the point is driven home early on, and the rest is monotonous overkill. But, when that critique of an industry’s over-reliance on a tiny pill becomes embodied by Rooney Mara’s depressed and suicidal Emily, we get Soderbergh at his very best. Muffled sounds, muted colors, and claustrophobically close and low-angle cinematography box this woman, her husband newly-released from prison, their previously-affluent lives shattered, into an stifling prison cell as invisible as her husband’s was visible. This is a deeply sick person, who any half-competent person will tell you cannot be cured with a simple dose of Ablixa, and one knife and blood-strewn apartment later, that point is driven home.

And then the last 15 minutes happened.

A lot of people will despise the big twist, most likely for its utter implausibility and how it practically undoes the aesthetically dynamic portrait of a mentally damaged woman. The biggest problem is its implausibility, how 7093274320987432839 things had to go right for this dastardly scheme of greed and lust to work out, and that Law & Order: SVU, 11th hour revelation-esque implausibility does to a degree distract from an overall message the film is trying to put across. But, if it does indeed completely alter Emily at the snap of a finger, if anything it’s even more of a testament to Soderbergh’s skill as a filmmaker, to so convincingly depict the mental agony of a character through simple filmmaking techniques, only to find out that Soderbergh, and Emily, fooled us the whole time. You could even argue that it was a necessary 180 for the character, a final step in completely transitioning the flawed protagonist role from Emily to Dr. Banks. Before we know the truth about Emily, Dr. Banks’ search for the truth is a draining one for the man, as embodied by his increasingly-visible stubble, increasingly-invisible home and professional life, and simple things like Jude Law’s hunched posture when being grilled by both the cops and the powers-that-be in the psychiatry field about his treatment of Emily. Even before the truth totally comes out, and particularly afterwards, it’s hard to deny that Dr. Banks’ obsession is more about his own self-preservation than the fate of his maligned patient, yet we’re still drawn into his plight, in a wouldn’t-YOU-want-to-save-your-own-skin? kind of way. This is one of Jude Law’s best performances, as a man who’s initially well-meaning but ultimately tangled in the flaws of his branch of medicine and his own very human desire for a quick solution and money, and ultimately fixated on saving himself above anyone else, with just enough of a twisted desire to see justice done to make his shoes big enough for us to fit in.

I think the plot twist’s ultimate benefit is its greatly expanding the scope of the film’s message. What began as a critique of legal drug culture, right down to those shrill and insulting TV ads, becomes a critique of the entire psychiatry industry surrounding those drugs. As a seemingly manically-depressed woman murders a loved one while in a drug-induced stupor, an industry’s lazy and profit-driven over-reliance on a quick fix has failed one whom it has sworn to help. As it’s revealed that that manically-depressed woman is actually a sociopath who has gamed the system and won a ticket to a mental facility, safely ensconced with the Get Out of Jail Free Card that is the double jeopardy law, so too has that industry’s failure extended to our legal system. Ultimately, that plot twist beckons us to go back and watch the whole thing again, both to pick up on clues like the camera focusing on the cop’s nametag, and to see how much Soderbergh screwed with us in general. If this is indeed his final film as he claims, it’s unfortunate we’ll never again see something new from the man, but at least we’ll have an opportunity to watch something a second time and find something new after all.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: