Known as the “master of suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock is considered a true pioneer of the contemporary thriller. He popularized the idea of the “femme fatale,” a woman whose beguiling attributes rendered men helpless, often with deadly consequences. So, when someone references Hitchcock or describes a film as “Hitchcockian,” I’m curious to see the supposed hallmarks of one of my favorite directors. When I heard one of the stars of the new movie Side Effects describe it as reminiscent of Hitchcock – I was convinced to give it a look.
Side Effects is Steven Soderbergh’s (Contagion, Magic Mike) latest addition to a prolific career. I’m a fan of his slick cinematography and the occasional languid feel of some of his movies, and Side Effects was no exception. The movie features Channing Tatum (The Vow, Magic Mike) and Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), as Martin and Emily Taylor, a young couple trying to rebuild their lives after Martin’s release from prison for insider trading. Separated for five years, the couple is eager to reunite, and they seem very loving and loyal to each other. Emily appears devoted, having stood by Martin during his fall from grace. However, soon after his release Emily falls into an inexplicable depression. I suppose some jittery anxiety is normal, as the pair hasn’t been intimate in quite some time. Yet Emily’s mood doesn’t comport with what should ostensibly be a very happy time in their lives. After she commits a dangerous act that shall remain nameless (you’re welcome), she comes under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), a psychiatrist who believes she may simply be feeling overwhelmed by Martin’s return. Eventually he gives her a prescription, but she continues to deteriorate both rapidly and publicly. She melts down at a black-tie party in front of their friends, and she needs consolation from a co-worker at her job.
Throughout her struggle, Martin remains patient and understanding as Emily listlessly goes through the motions of everyday life. She tries one prescription pill after another, as nothing seems capable of snapping her out of her funk. People suggest different medicines to her, and Banks gives her a sample of a drug called Ablixa (http://www.tryablixa.com/) after consulting briefly with her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Broken City). What follows is a series of events that will leave you shocked and scratching your head. The movie really shifts gears about halfway through, and I understand the Hitchcock comparisons. There was an intimate, dream-like quality to the film that made it feel mysterious and slightly foreboding, and I appreciated that aspect of the movie.
Despite the intriguing plot and expert cinematography, I found a lot to be desired when it came to performances. To be fair, it was only Channing Tatum that left me underwhelmed, yet again. I think he’s very good-looking and charming. According to some, he’s even the ‘sexiest man alive.’ Unfortunately for Tatum, this was a trait that served him better in Soderbergh’s last film, Magic Mike. Here I found him serviceable, at best. There just never seems to be much beneath the surface, with him. By no means do I think he’s unintelligent, but his performances always strike me as one note, failing to resonate. Rooney Mara, on the other hand, was convincing as a troubled, unstable young woman. Perhaps it’s her diminutive stature, but she always seems vulnerable, and I thought her physical make up served her well in the role. Her character required a duality that she ably conveyed. Lastly, Jude Law was effective as the well-meaning doctor who genuinely wants to help Emily but is clueless as to what deeper issues may be bubbling under her troubled veneer. The pacing was a bit slow in certain spots, but this was remedied by the final act.
I’ve tried to reveal as little as possible, but I’ll leave you with a solid recommendation for this tense thriller. Side Effects was sexy, mysterious, and suspenseful. Amidst a sea of Oscar contenders currently in some theaters, I thought it was a welcomed reprieve. Grade: B+
The pieces may not all come together to form an understandable flick, but this is a good slow-burner of a thriller in its own right, with an interesting set-up and a twist halfway in which will genuinely shock you. Good review.