Universal // 2013 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 28th, 2013
One pill can change your life.
"Depression is the inability to construct a future."
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is a young woman suffering from depression. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, Magic Mike) has just been released from prison, and the couple is making an attempt to return to normality. Alas, Emily seems unable to handle the pressure. One day, she attempts to commit suicide by ramming her car into the wall of a parking garage. A psychiatrist (Jude Law, I Heart Huckabees) begins treating her and places her on antidepressants. Medication doesn't seem to have much of an effect on Emily until the psychiatrist agrees to place her on a relatively new drug called Ablixa. Suddenly, Emily's mood improves and her marriage begins to recover. Unfortunately, there are some unexpected Side Effects.
If any recent film deserved an Alfred Hitchcock-style marketing campaign, it's Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects. Perhaps each theatre should have received a life-sized cut-out of Soderbergh, staring sternly over his horn-rimmed glasses and making a "shhhhh!" motion. The usual warning should appear in bold print: "Don't tell your friends the secret of Side Effects!" Of course, such an effort would be vain in the present day, as we live in a world in which many people work very hard to ensure that everyone knows everything (whether they really need to or not). Nonetheless, Soderbergh has crafted a terrific old-fashioned thriller (though it's an old-fashioned thriller that focuses heavily on a rather modern subject) that stirs up memories of The Master of Suspense (and Henri-Georges Clouzot and Adrian Lyne).
As you might have guessed from that description, I can't really tell you much about the film's plot. Side Effects is one kind of movie for its first half-hour or so -- a cautionary tale about the dangers of antidepressants that might cause some viewers to have flashbacks to Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life -- and then it becomes another sort of movie. I wouldn't dream of telling you how or why it does this, but suffice it to say that the final reel of the movie looks nothing like the first one.
Many thrillers and horror films work hard to frighten us by confirming our deepest fears. Yes, there really is something hiding under the bed. Yes, that person you keep seeing in your rearview mirror really is stalking you. Yes, having premarital sex does have terrible consequences. Initially, it seems as if Soderbergh is working in this territory, digging up the real-life terror lurking in the fine print of those sunny, innocuous medication commercials. Ah, but he has more up his sleeve, and when I eventually discovered what he was up to, I wanted to applaud. If the director really is giving up on feature films, he's going out at the top of his game.
The ensemble cast is stellar. Mara does some strong, subdued work as Emily, selling the character's moments of volatility and depression with uncomfortable authenticity. Tatum is warm and good-natured as her ex-con husband, while Catherine Zeta-Jones brings a bit of noirish intrigue to her turn as Emily's former psychiatrist. Jude Law does a fine job in one of the film's most important roles -- he seems like a good guy, but he also gives off an oily vibe that makes one just a bit cautious of him. It's a Michael Douglas-style turn from the actor; another reminder of why he's an underrated asset to almost any film he appears in. It's also a pleasure to see talented folks like Ann Dowd (Compliance) and Vinessa Shaw (Two Lovers) turn up in small supporting roles, though Shaw's character could have used a bit more substance.
It's always difficult to judge the quality of a screenplay in a review, because in most cases critics aren't given the opportunity to actually read the screenplay. It can be difficult to determine which scenes were altered by the director, which lines were improvised or which moments were improved or worsened due to decisions made by others during the production process. That being said, I suspect a good deal of the credit for the success of Side Effects should go to writer Scott Z. Burns, who previously penned the Soderbergh flicks The Informant! and Contagion. As far as I'm concerned, these three collaborations represent some of Soderbergh's strongest work.
Side Effects (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that spotlights the film's intentionally drab palette. Light yellows, greens, blues, grays and whites dominate, leaving the film feeling much like a trip to a hospital (as it should). Soderbergh's pays more attention to the color scheme of his films than the average director, ensuring that each of his movies has a distinctive look. Detail is strong, flesh tones are natural, depth is impressive and blacks are deep. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is solid, highlighting Thomas Newman's effective, insinuating score in particular. The dialogue is clean and clear throughout. Generally, it's a low-key track. Supplements are thin: a 3-minute making of piece, fake commercials for two different antidepressants featured in the film and a mock Ablixa website. You also get a DVD copy and a digital copy.
Side Effects is an exceptional flick which once again reminds us of Steven Soderbergh's skill and versatility. Recommended.
Review content copyright © 2013 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Fake Website
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy