Saturday, February 9, 2013


Emily (Rooney Mara) is depressed. Her husband (Channing Tatum) is getting out of prison after serving a four year sentence for insider trading, but she’s wearing a frown, her eyes turned downwards, her pale skin still and pensive. It’s shortly after he returns home that she deliberately drives her car into the wall of a parking garage. At the hospital, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist, comes to check on her. She knows the drill. She’s been in therapy before. She asks that he let her go home on the condition that she meets with him regularly for consultations. She says she feels hopeful that the right medication will help her feel better. This is just the start of Side Effects, a twisty thriller that starts out as one kind of darkly psychological movie and is thrown by a single moment of unexpected violence into a second kind of thriller, one with a shift in protagonist, with knotty mysteries that slowly simmer and bring into focus clues that lead towards a series of climactic revelations that reveal it all to be, perhaps, in the end, a bit too predictable.

But through it all, masterful director Steven Soderbergh, in what he claims is his penultimate film before retirement, views with startling specificity and smooth digital surfaces the tensions and foibles that the characters find themselves trapped within, slowly, selfishly jockeying for their best possible outcome in an increasingly disreputable series of events. It’s the kind of story about sharply dressed young professionals crossing paths, interrogating their feelings, and turning their problems into the stuff of pulp fictions that would’ve been perfectly at home as one of those mid-budget 90’s thrillers. You know the kind, the ones that would probably star Ashley Judd or Michael Douglas. Here, though, Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Soderbergh’s even better films The Informant! and Contagion) has written a script that goes down smoothly with psychological twists that are given pleasingly sleek textures with Soderbergh’s keen sense of framing visual spaces in evocative ways and using jazzy, syncopated editing to methodically keep things moving. It’s a typical thriller elevated by the committed talents of all involved.

There’s a scene early on when Emily, suddenly appearing distraught at a cocktail party, the first social event she and her newly freed husband have gone to since their reunion, steps away from the group and slides up to the corner of the bar to silently weep. The frame is entirely blurry until she learns closer, the camera pulling the picture into focus. This trick is repeated to various degrees through the film. Through scene after scene shot with shallow depth of focus, perhaps the foreground is blurred, or maybe a character leans into the range of focus. These images serve to underline that these characters are people who feel fuzzy emotionally, legally, and professionally. They aren’t seeing clearly or are operating without all the information, doing the best they can under the circumstances to advance selfish goals and come out on top.

The doctor, having commiserated with his patient’s former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) at a conference, prescribes anti-depressants to Emily. The side effects end up snowballing into a high-stakes legal dispute that calls into question the motives of everyone involved. Questions of power, who has it, who needs it, and who really has the upper hand, become important, the difference between imprisonment and freedom, riches and poverty. I’m being deliberately vague here. The pleasures of the film come from the brisk, involving way Soderbergh, relaxed, twists the knife of the screenplay, effortlessly making the plot turns sharply and without losing sight of the big picture.

In observant close ups, the actors are given a chance to reveal their characters’ true intentions – or are they? – with the glance of an eye or the twitch of a cheek. Key flashbacks and montages fill in perceptive details that reveal shadings to incidents and environments that change the meanings of previously held beliefs about what happened, what the characters want, who is helping and who is hurting the goals of the others. Thomas Newman’s needling score joins forces with the crisp cuts to keep it all off-kilter, teetering on the brink of greater dangers. Only disappointing in the way it concludes with less of a flourish than it begins, Side Effects is a fine work of thriller craftsmanship from all involved, and a typically expert genre bauble that’s as sensible an auteurist signifier as anything Soderbergh has done. In its twists, it finds reason to nod towards nearly every theme and preoccupation he’s dealt with throughout his career. If we’re really nearing a goodbye, he’ll be missed, but he’ll also be leaving behind a wonderful collection of films worth revisiting.

No comments:

Post a Comment