Side Effects (2013)

By the time it finishes explaining itself to the audience, I was a touch tired of Side Effects. Once the mystery was gone, there was nothing to keep me transfixed on the screen. At this point in the film, the characters should be intriguing enough to fulfill this role, and I suppose it’s because they’re so lacking — either because they lie the entire movie or there’s nothing to them — that Side Effects can’t be given anything more than a halfhearted recommendation.

Perhaps this is why the trailers have tried so hard to keep the plot of the film from us. Once we’re aware of the type of movie that Side Effects is, certain conclusions arrive in our minds before the film has the chance to dazzle. I mean, I was fully prepared for a movie about pharmaceutical medications that caused something traumatic to happen to a woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), that were prescribed by a doctor (Jude Law) with something to hide, or maybe under false pretenses. That’s all the trailers have given away, and it’s for this reason that Side Effects actually looks like it’s worth seeing.

Here’s the real film: Emily suffers from depression. One of the earliest scenes has her drive her car into a wall, although she’s left only with a concussion and an order to start seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Law). She takes the drugs he gives her, which have certain effects on her. It causes sleepwalking, for one, and that leads to her stabbing and killing her recently-released-from-prison husband (Channing Tatum). The rest of the film deals with Dr. Banks attempting to figure out just what caused the stabbing; whether it was simply the drugs or if something else is behind it.

What I’m trying to get across is that Side Effects is a vastly different movie than what’s being advertised. Oh, it’s a thriller, and there are twists and turns, but it’s not a mystery and the drugs only play a role early on, and as a MacGuffin. It’s much more a film about people and they way they double-cross one another than it is about anything related to the field of medicine.

You’ll guess one of these twists from a mile away, although the way it reveals itself to us is effective. Another big turn in the story is less obvious, although once it gets explained to us, it loses its edge. While it’s hinted at for quite a while, the reveal comes with an explanation of the entire course of events that have taken place thus far, and it was just kind of boring. There’s no subtlety or complexity; the film just says “Okay, here’s how it all worked,” and then lets the characters deal with that revelation.

Admittedly, it was nice to see that our hero, Banks — and there’s a hint regarding what the motivation for most of the film is — has slightly more to him than just being a Mary Sue, but he’s the only one in the entire film like that. Everyone else is either lying to us the entire time, or has nothing beyond the surface. Banks is our lead, I get that, but without that depth to everyone else the true course of events feels contrived. I don’t blame anyone for throwing their hands up in the air at the end and screaming “I give up.” It’s that kind of movie.

This also hurts it on rewatches. Instead of looking for things you missed before, you’ll be thinking about how stupid the whole enterprise is now that you’ve been given the benefit of knowing how it actually played out. Sure, it’s moderately thrilling the first time you go through, but it’s silly in retrospect. I suppose it might be fun to see if everything holds up — if characters and their motivations in specific scenes “work,” so to speak — but I don’t know if I’d want to bother.

Side Effects is, as far as we know, director Steven Soderbergh’s swan song to the art of theatrical releases. He has a television movie coming out later this year, but he plans to retire from filmmaking, or at least go on a long hiatus, after Side Effects‘ release. Perhaps that’s for the best. This is still a good movie, as are most by him, but this seems like a very easy and effortless production, one that could have been done by anyone and this is still the result we’ll get. Nothing about this film needed a director like Steven Soderbergh. I hope he comes back after taking the time off he wants and does something challenging.

That’s really the thing. Side Effects is still a good film in the moment. It works fine as a thriller — as you initially watch it, anyway — it has some good acting, and it is shot in a way that will always keep your attention. Deep focus is barely used in this film, which is rare nowadays. It creates a focus on the actors and their performances. That’s fine. Now if the characters themselves were worth more we might have ourselves a movie you should definitely see.

Side Effects is fine if you want a passable thriller that you’ll forget about the next day. That’s about all it equates to. Just don’t go in thinking that the trailers are a solid representation of the finished product, because they are very deceptive. It has good actors, a twisty — but kind of stupid — plot, and a good director who might just need a creative hiatus.

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