Active Ingredients: Psychological sound design; Unpredictability; Taught direction
Side Effects: Underdeveloped characters; Multiple endings
Side Effects is a difficult film to write about. Not so much because it contains grandiose plot twists in the vein of The Usual Suspects, but because it’s never clear which direction the film will veer at any moment. Much like the entire directorial career of Steven Soderbergh—which, he claims, will end with this film—Side Effects deftly and gleefully weaves its way through a host of different tones, moods and genres, all the while maintaining the suspense of a tightrope walk. And, again like Soderbergh’s career, the film’s success and originally is defined by its versatility.
Side Effects stars Rooney Mara as a woman battling with depression, Channing Tatum as her ambitious husband recently released from prison for insider trading, and Jude Law as a psychologist who prescribes pills to help level her out. The medication, however, does anything but return Mara to normalcy. Instead, she alternates between sombre functionality and a deep and dangerous fog which strips her of control over her emotions.
Throughout the film, both the parts I’ve described and those I haven’t, Soderbergh brilliantly grounds the audience inside the characters’ helplessness. Using disorienting high-angle establishing shots, subtle handheld camerawork, and, most importantly, manipulated off-screen sound and music, he allows us to experience events from inside their minds. As ever, Soderbergh is not so much flashy as deliberately and stylishly tuned in to the psychology of his film. And, in Side Effects more than even his best efforts, he demonstrates a mastery over the film’s story, themes and style. Both narratively and formally, this is a tricky and wonderfully assured film from an impeccable craftsman. He will be missed.