‘Side Effects’ Review: Soderbergh Goes Out with a Subtle Bang
Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) returns home after spending four years in prison for insider trading. Happy to see him home is his wife Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), but she now battles depression as she did years earlier. One spur-of-the-moment decision lands her in the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), where the mystery of Side Effects
Director Steven Soderbergh is retiring from the movies. It’s sad to say, but at least he left the cinema behind with this fantastic thriller that forgoes loud trappings for an engaging story and slowly burning plot points. Revealing more about the story than what I’ve already stated might risk spoiling Soderbergh’s last cinematic hoorah, and this is the kind of movie you want to know as little about as possible before watching.
What begins as a drama about a couple battling relationship difficulties slowly evolves into an engaging mystery. The characters here – and the brilliant performances that bring them to life – constantly hide their emotions and, ultimately, themselves until screenwriter Scott Z. Burns decides to bring them into the light. Even when you can predict the ultimate ending, you never quite know what happens next – how it's going to get there – in Side Effects.
The tight script from Burns captures intricate details – ones that might seem transitory and insignificant at the moment – and uses these seemingly unimportant tidbits to unravel the fabric of the story, the real actions of these characters, as he sees fit. It doesn’t go for momentary surprises or jump scares as Burns hardly reveals any portion of the story without a sense of drama and intrigue. There’s nothing too outlandish happening here, and Side Effects never sacrifices believability for cheap thrills.
Cashing in highly on this dedication to believability is Mara, who throws herself into what might be her strongest performance yet. Like Jessica Chastain, Mara brings to the acting table a highly expressive face. Even with piercings and almost no eyebrows she showcases so much with her face in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She puts her facial arsenal to excellent use – arguably fuller than what she did in Dragon Tattoo – in Side Effects. Her eyes glisten and fill with rage, her mouth gasps and tightens, her voice cracks with anxiety. And in the few moments that call for it, she beams with joy with a wide smile.
It’s these small tics that make her performance, one of intrigue and suspense and betrayal, such a thrill to watch. More importantly, Mara makes these decisions subtly and with little artifice, despite what the nature of the thriller genre dictates about this kind of performance. She keeps you guessing for the entirety of Side Effects. The thriller genre often fosters this kind of character, but Mara takes this character to another level and makes it her own. It’s too early to discuss next year’s Oscars when we haven’t even finished with the snoozefest that will result in Argo winning Best Picture – not to mention that we still have more than 10 months of performances to watch – but here’s hoping Oscar voters save room for Mara when they fill out their 2013 ballots.
Of course, Law deserves some credit for his fine work as Jonathan. He begins as a relatively normal man, but Law takes him on a maniacal journey through an odd balance of dedication and obsession. Jonathan’s determination puts the second act into high gear, though the fabric of the story frequently gets the better of him.
Tatum proves to be something of a blank slate in Side Effects. However, such dullness proves to be more of an asset than a detriment, especially considering that the film hardly focuses on him as a character, so to speak. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows off her dramatic chops more than one might expect as Emily’s former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert. Vinessa Shaw does fine by the small role as Law’s wife. Dowd, who scored quite a bit of Oscar steam albeit not a nomination for Compliance last year, puts in great work as Martin’s grieving mother. She also gets an arguably applause-worthy moment as the film concludes.
Soderbergh looks now to shine on the small screen and the Great White Way, but he ends his film career with a bang. Side Effects might make for a quiet and relatively subtle bang, but it’s also one that forsakes loudness in totality, saving its resounding moments for the most opportune moments.