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Side Effects

Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Gregory Jacobs, Scott Z. Burns 
Written by Scott Z. Burns 
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum

Open Road Films / Rated R

I really enjoyed Steven Soderbergh’s latest thriller, Side Effects, a murder mystery placed in the unusual setting of the pharmaceutical industry. The story is initially about a young woman welcoming her husband home from prison (for insider trading) while coping with severe depression. I’d really like to express all of how I feel about the film and the brilliant characters it features, but I can’t without giving everything away. I understand now why the trailer was incredibly vague.

It’s easy to be misled in thinking that this movie is similar to Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller, Contagion, where the role of the virus is replaced by a pharmaceutical drug, but Side Effects is a character study about manipulation. It’s not about an outside source that affects people (like a virus or drugs) but the actual side effects and impacts people have on each other.

The characters are realized wonderfully by an amazing cast — minus the inexplicable choice of Channing Tatum. I don’t buy for a second that “Magic Mike” knows anything about derivative and stock trading. Thankfully his role isn’t very prominent.

Rooney Mara gives an intense performance as the unbalanced Emily Taylor. Her tears, anxiety and raw emotions are tactile and evocative. Emily’s medicinal-influenced behavior is initiated after she intentionally drives her car into a cement wall. We pity and worry for her throughout her treatment with Dr. Jonathan Banks, played by Jude Law.

Law is really finding depth in his latest roles under Soderbergh’s direction. In Contagion we saw him as a greedy con artist disguised as a concerned ally of the weak. As Dr. Jonathan Banks, he’s an initially trustworthy psychiatrist whose credibility dwindles as his patient’s drug-influenced actions have awful consequences. Jude Law excellently captures his character’s descent from a successful authority figure to an ostracized villain. At the end he is fueled solely by desperation to regain his life.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Dr. Victoria Siebert, is a bit too stereotypically sultry as Emily’s past psychiatrist. Does she have to look so much like a typical sexy doctor? I was surprised she wasn’t wearing leather pumps at some point.

An interesting aspect of the film was it’s surprising neutrality in the presence of such emotional content. I was very impressed by Soderbergh’s successful emulation of the drugs presented on screen. The close and blurred shots are those of a drug-induced, closely sedated point of view at times, while other the scenes are briskly paced, compounding events as they unfold. The score of the film was both subtle and ominous. I never felt particularly anxious, but rather happily numb while witnessing a great deal of tension and emotional turmoil.

The director controls the audience at all points of the film. He gives us as much information as he deems appropriate at any given moment and while some parts were predictable, it was superbly executed. Even though the twists are a bit too intense as the film progresses, it’s a great production and interesting view of modern drug use and high-stakes manipulation.

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