Movie Reviews

‘Side Effects’: Things are never as they seem

By Kevin MathewsMovies - 20 March 2013 9:00 AM | Updated 5:21 PM

‘Side Effects’: Things are never as they seem

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Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

What is the truth and what is a lie?

As a reviewer, one is rather caught in a dilemma when reviewing a film like ‘Side Effects’. At the end of the day, the effectiveness of the film hinges on the element of surprise.

Taking it in comparison with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic ‘Psycho’, you would have literally jumped out of your seat the moment Norman Bates attacked Janet Leigh in the pivotal shower scene. Of course, it would have been less of a surprise if you had pre-knowledge of that event (assuming that you have watched ‘Psycho’, and apologies if you haven’t!)

With ‘Side Effects’, over at IMDB the simple plot of Steven Soderberg’s “final film” is described as “a young woman's world unravels when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects.” This description sets up a particular view of what the film could be about. Then, there are the trailers.

We see a happy couple – Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) – whose world unravels when Martin is arrested and imprisoned. This trauma sends Emily into clinical depression. Her psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), after consulting Emily’s previous psychiatrist Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), prescribes Ablixa, a new antidepressant drug, to help Emily with her depression.

Then things go wrong. Banks talks about Emily walking in her sleep, characterising the behaviour as a ‘side effect’. We see a car smash against a car park wall, a desperate phone call to 911 from Emily, Emily being incarcerated, accusations levelled against Banks concerning his relationship with Emily. At the end of the trailer, a voice says – “Isn’t she sick? I thought sick people make things up?”

But of course, if things were as straightforward as advertised then what would be the point of ‘Side Effects’? The entire deal with the film is that between Steven Soderbergh’s direction and Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay, the viewer is kept guessing at all times as to the motivations of the key characters and has to go back to the main question again – what is the truth and what is a lie?

An excellent premise and a suitable setup for a taut, psychological thriller in the best Hitchcockian tradition. Soderbergh is of course, well qualified to pull off an exciting drama – with highly rated films like ‘Traffic’ and ‘Contagion’ under his belt. His films are often very sharp, clean and realistic looking, as he is a cinematographer and editor in his own right. Viewers will marvel at the unique shooting angles that Soderbergh excels in.

Soderbergh is also noted for his non-intrusive directorial style which brings out the best from his actors. In ‘Side Effects’ the main roles are played by Academy Award nominees Mara and Law. For the first half of the film, Soderbergh trains the camera on Mara’s sad face almost constantly and for the second half the attention shifts to Law as he adjusts from perplexed to angry to determined by the film’s end. Zeta-Jones is deliciously diabolical as the untrustworthy Dr Siebert whilst Tatum brings a sense of clueless bravado to the role of Matt.

However, in the final analysis, the plot simply does not hold. As interesting as the various twists and turns and shocks (no spoilers!) are, most of them don’t make sense. It transpires that most of the portrayals and characterisations early on are targeted to deceive the audience into fixing upon one perception only for the narrative to veer away with subsequent plot points. Fair enough – but when one goes back to those earlier portrayals and characterisations, they are just not consistent or logical once the final context and motivation is revealed.

While we forgive these lapses in logic as artistic license, that argument can only go so far. Mind you, there are indeed many positives to be taken out of ‘Side Effects’ – from the excellent direction to the top-notch acting, there is little doubt that this is a film that is professionally produced. However, the deeper thinkers will have that nagging feeling that ‘Side Effects’ contained plot points that were a bit too convenient and story resolutions that made no sense at all.

That aside, ‘Side Effects’ is recommended viewing.

‘Side Effects’ opens in theatres on 21 March 2013.



Kevin Mathews is a noted writer, musician, teacher and mentor. As a pop culture journalist, he has written for over two decades with newspapers like The New Paper & TODAY, print magazines like BigO, Amplifier, Pop Culture Press & Bucketfull of Brains and online publications such as MTVAsia.com, PopMatters.com and PowerofPop.com.