Humorist Garrison Keillor once said that God invented the month of March so that people who don’t drink will know what a hangover feels like. Keeping that thought in mind and considering that March came in like the proverbial lion to extend an already seemingly endless winter, “Side Effects,” a dark, convoluted, at times confusing, at other times intriguing, thriller about murder and mental illness, seemed like a perfect film to watch at the beginning of miserable March. What fun this one was!
Appearing in the first film since her Oscar-nominated performance in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Rooney Mara makes a triumphant return to the silver screen as Emily Taylor, a young woman with more than her share of problems. For starters, her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has just been released from prison after serving a four-year term for insider trading. Before he was caught, however, Martin and Emily lived the high life, but when Martin was incarcerated, Emily sank into the throes of depression, and she still has problems with it after Martin comes home.
Shortly after Martin’s release, Emily apparently decides that life is not worth living even with her husband back home because she tries to kill herself and ends up in the hospital. (No, I won’t tell you what she did.) The psychiatrist assigned to Emily’s case is Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), and he reluctantly discharges her into her husband’s care after making her promise to see him in his office several times a week. And thus begins the rather strange doctor-patient relationship that forms the nucleus of the film.
After Banks prescribes a number of different antidepressants that don’t work for Emily, he decides to contact her former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who convinces him to have Emily try an experimental drug named Ablixa. At first Banks doesn’t want to put Emily on the new medication, but when she does something to illustrate how ill she really is, he agrees, and the drug works for her despite its side effect of turning her into a somnambulist.
It is during one of her sleepwalking episodes that Emily engages in an act that alters the course of her life forever, and from this point on the film contains more twists and turns than a nest of pit vipers. The film bombards you with one surprise after another, and just when you think you have things figured out, it throws you another curve until it leaves you gazing in open-mouthed amazement at its stunning conclusion.
Under the direction of Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) and with the screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion”), “Side Effects” is at once fascinating, obscure, depressing, foreboding, and irritating. As I watched the closing credits role by, I wasn’t sure whether I had liked it not, but I can say that I didn’t particularly enjoy it. At one point in the film, Emily is trying to tell her husband how her depression feels, and she says, “You don’t know, Martin. You never had this. You don’t know what it’s like. Okay, every afternoon it’s like, it’s like there’s this poisonous fog bank growing in on my mind, and I’m paralyzed.” That’s somewhat the way I felt as I watched parts of this strangely captivating film.
In writing the screenplay, Burns incorporated the elements of a psychological thriller, a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and an elaborate medical scam. In the film’s production notes, he explained what he was hoping to achieve with the story and what intrigued him about it.
“I wanted to write a noir-style thriller that took the audience in and spun it around, like “Double Indemnity” or “Body Heat, set in the world of psychopharmacology. I was inspired by films that involve crafty, clever scams, set against the society the audience is really living in. People seem to have stopped making those, but I have always loved the genre. Our story is … full of plot twists and turns that have you constantly questioning what actually happened and who is telling the truth.
“I believe that what draws you into a thriller is humanity. You get twisted around as much by your own heart and your own perception as by the plot mechanics. It’s great to pull the rug out from people, and I think that’s a really fun thing that can happen in a movie theater. But what Steven and I wanted, beyond that, was for audiences to have the rug pulled out from under them in terms of their own experiences.”
Believe me when I tell you that this film definitely pulls the rug out from under you in a number of places. In addition to the main story, the film contains a number of subplots, and they all involve unexpected twists. By the time the movie is over, you may well find your brain engulfed in that fog bank Emily described.
The part of Emily was tailor made for Mara because she successfully imbues her with a vulnerability that immediately elicits our sympathy. In fact there were places in the film when I wanted scream, “For God’s sake, get this poor woman some help!” She is a superb young actress with a terrific range, and her work in this film is a testament to her terrific talent. In the production notes, she explained what drew her to the picture and offered an analysis of her character.
“I had to read it more than once. It’s constructed so you often think things are one way, and realize later they’re something else. People don’t really make thrillers like this anymore. It definitely feels sort of like a throwback to classic movies.
“Plus Emily is such a complex and interesting character. I don’t read many parts written for women like this. Usually you’re playing a girlfriend or a wife, sort of second fiddle to a guy. When a part comes along that has this much meat to it, it’s really exciting.”
Law also is quite effective in the role of the Emily’s psychiatrist, who has plenty of his own problems that I won’t reveal here. In fact, his life is one of those many subplots I mentioned earlier, and what happens to him is most interesting.
And the same can be said of Zeta-Jones, whose character may drop the biggest bombshell of all near the end of the film. You may see it coming, but it surprised the hell out of me.
“Side Effects” (Let’s give it a foggy seven.) certainly is not an uplifting film, and so if you are looking for a movie that will make you leave the theater whistling a happy tune, definitely skip this one. On the other hand, if you are in the market for a movie to match the pervading gloom of early March, this is it. I found it just intriguing enough that I probably will watch it again at some point just to see whether any of the myriad surprises were telegraphed because I didn’t anticipate any of them.
And here’s one final piece of advice if you decide to see this movie. When you leave the theater and walk outside, don’t be surprised by the strange fog that envelops your brain. It’s simply one of the film’s main side effects