‘Side Effects’ is a twisty tale of shifting alliances

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Side Effects
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
USA, 2013

One of the persistent side effects of what may turn out to be Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical release is destabilization. The film, aptly named Side Effects, is constantly forcing you to reevaluate who its characters are, what their motivations might be, and ultimately, what kind of story we are watching. In this regard, it becomes an almost perfect capstone to the career of one of Hollywood’s most prolific and versatile filmmakers.

To call Soderbergh a chameleon would be somewhat inaccurate—he retains certain stylistic elements and thematic predilections throughout his work. Yet he shifted effortlessly from big-budget Hollywood fare to independent and art films, from lighthearted romps to sociopolitical explorations and even indictments. He could make science fiction, biopics, action movies, and heist films. Throughout all of it, he was able to maintain a strong authorial presence and a tight control over the world he was building and the narrative he unspooled.

Walking into Side Effects with no or little pre-existing knowledge about the film (this is a good idea for those who haven’t yet seen it) means it’s not yet clear whether this is one of Soderbergh’s social issues movies or a different beat entirely. The film reveals itself, slowly, falteringly, and with plenty of uncertainty, to be a different beast entirely, an exploration of identity, duplicity, integrity, and pride wrapped in a twisty tale of shifting alliances, intrigue, and high-level strategic thinking.

The film hinges on the central performance of Rooney Mara, who plays a woman on edge who may be pushed over by the release of her husband (Channing Tatum) from white-collar prison. She’s emotionally unstable even on a good day, but the upheaval of his release pushes her deeper into anxiety and depression. After attempting suicide, she seeks treatment from a new therapist (Jude Law) who willingly writes her a prescription for an experimental new antidepressant.

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To say more would spoil much of the film’s fun, but perhaps its greatest achievement is the way it manages to bind its higher and lower aspirations, fusing two separate types of movies into a glorious whole. On the one hand, this is a high-minded story about the compromises forced on doctors and patients to simply keep their heads above water in the corporate-controlled health care system, and a story about the dangers of becoming too invested in a “winner takes all” financial system. On the other, it is a lurid, pulpy tale that never takes itself more seriously than it needs and prides itself on its ability to keep audiences off-balance and guessing, often wildly, at what might come next.

Side Effects plays around structurally like many of Soderbergh’s films, but it also plays around with structure itself, messing with the very architecture of the story so we’re never sure from one moment to the next where things are headed. Whether the conclusion is ultimately satisfying almost seems to be beside the point: Side Effects is all about being an exhilarating thrill ride that questions the type of people who look at their lives the way it asks us to look at the film. What kind of people can view others like pieces on a chessboard, and risk everything they, and others, have for the chance at vast wealth? Perhaps they are completely unlike the sort that sit down in a theater to watch their story. Or perhaps they are simply the side effects of the system we have set up and rigged against the powerless.

— Jordan Ferguson

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