Perhaps you’ve heard the deliciously Catch-22-esque line of logic stating that after a person is deemed insane, everything they may do after that point, even if it involves laying down lasting and irrefutable proof to the contrary, will be essentially invalid because they have already been pronounced insane. As fellow author and arguably crazy person, Gabriel, likes to say, the feeling of being so completely trapped and imprisoned behind this impenetrable wall of logic is a truly terrifying experience. We’re quite familiar with the idea of the protagonist become entangled in this paradox, but not so much when it happens to someone who actually deserves it. Enter Side Effects, which tells the story of mystery and murder within the medical industrial complex, and very nearly pulls it off.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh of the Oceans franchise and more recently Magic Mike, it’s clear that Side Effects prefers style to substance. Indeed, as impressive as Soderbergh’s characteristic semi-minimalist visual aesthetic is, one can’t help but to feel strangely gypped in the end, as though the surf and turf dinner that you were excitedly expecting contained a mediocre steak and a baked potato instead of a lobster. Though stark and markedly atmospheric the visuals may be, they aren’t impressive enough to compensate from the shortcomings of the story.
Channing Tatum reprises his cooperation with Soderbergh as disgraced Wall Street big-shot Martin Taylor. Rooney Mara of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo likewise gives an admirable performance as mentally unstable femme fatale Emily Taylor. Mara seems almost tailor made for this role, as her meek, feeble exterior masks a smoldering deviancy which comes across beautifully in her performance. The always fabulous Jude Law also makes an appearance as ambitious psychiatrist Jonathan Banks, bringing some not unwelcome British charm and panache to the otherwise thoroughly American affair.
Side Effects is unique in the sense that it seems to shift directions entirely mid-way through the film. The first half generally focuses on Emily’s (Mara) supposed struggle with a life endangering case of depression. The focus then shifts to the plight of Dr. Banks (Law) as he attempts to unravel a nefarious conspiracy amid a crumbling family life. The switch, instead of feeling schizophrenic and unfocused, serves to create a sense of underlying intensity and urgency as our sympathies must necessarily lie with both Emily and Dr. Banks simultaneously, at least for a short time. For the most part, the gripping drama is extremely effective and presented within a very tight, cohesive narrative structure. Unfortunately, fatally, this psychological thriller skimps in the arena most vital to its success; the execution of the twist.
For fans of Prometheus, the grand revelation, or rather the manner in which it is delivered, will likely seem disappointingly familiar. Prometheus had the same problem Side Effects has, in that they succeed in crafting a beautifully engrossing world, both in a visual and narrative sense, and then proceed to unabashedly tell the audience the plot twist with nary a second thought. When you’re dealing with the psychological horror genre, intrigue is like a beautiful courtesan coyly exposing her upper thigh to entrance you and keep you involved in the proceedings as exposition is weaved into the narrative gradually, culminating in a shocking reveal, augmented with a feeling of both weight and substance. Explaining the twist to the audience outright is like revealing that the aforementioned beautiful courtesan is actually a hastily thrown-together cardboard cutout with a house dress thrown over it.
I admit that I’m disappointed in the film because it was within spitting distance of greatness but makes a wrong turn down Mediocrity Lane. The aesthetic was there, the characters were there, the plot was there, but the reveal is such a let down and ultimately makes an otherwise excellent film forgettable. Soderbergh fans will likely enjoy it for no other reason that it being rife with his trademark style. Though admittedly a disappointment, if you’re bored one evening you could certainly do worse than Side Effects.
Rating: 3 out of 5