Side Effects – Thrillingly great Theatre

Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum and Steven Soderbergh! What a mass of star names for just one film. Certainly the story about pharmaceutical drugs, their use and misuse, their advantages and dangers wouldn’t have needed big names to succeed. It’s well written and structured and probably would have been a hit with no-name actors as well. However, the famous faces didn’t do any damage. Each of the actors seems to have dropped their ego for the duration of the shoot. They all click together, deliver great performances and make Side Effects a pretty great piece of modern cinema that premiered at the Berlinale in Feburary.

Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) was arrested for insider trading on the day of his wedding. Shortly after he is finally released from prison four years later his wife Emily (Rooney Mara) deliberately crashes her car into a concrete wall. Her newly assigned psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) experiences her as overchallenged, listless and helpless and prescribes psychiatric drugs to help with her depression. When none of the drugs work, Banks calls Emily’s previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta Jones) for help. The colleague recommends trying a new drug that is still in a testing phase. First reluctant his greed (the pharmaceutical company pays the psychiatrists to test the drug) and his ambition (he does genuinely want to help his patients, but also strives to get ahead for it) drives Banks to agree and give Emily the new medicine…

This is the fairly dull sounding plot of Side Effects’ first quarter. But although it doesn’t sound gripping and intriguing it looks and feels even more compelling while watching it on the screen. Each picture suggests that something is brewing, something is happening in the subtext, one just cannot decipher what it is just yet. The audience immediately knows that each of these moments, each decision, each look and word will matter later on and thus even these plain scenes have you on the edge of your seat.

Of course every other word about the plot would spoil the fun Side Effects generates when viewing it for the first time. It is a truly gripping psychological thriller with fantastic performances. Jude Law is completely altruistic in his role as the driven Dr. Banks, Channing Tatum embodies the loving and disturbed husband perfectly, Catherine Zeta Jones is so determined and stone-cold it’s stunning and Rooney Mara is simply the next superstar. She has been great in previous films, but this part seems to have been written for her. Like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby , Tippi Hedren in Marnie or Sissy Spacek in the first half of Carrie, Mara nails the ambiguity of scared/scary, vulnerable/hurtful, victim/culprit in the role. It’s a gruelling joy to watch her slide from one to the other and back again!

And then of course there is Mister Soderbergh, who claims this was his farewell film. He manages to keep up with his actors performances and find the perfect balance between character study and thriller action, between images charged with meaning and conversations drained of information. The viewer desperately seeks for the solution to the plot and when it is suddenly revealed in the very end the film is over before one can realize. It would be a masterful ending to a career, but it certainly leaves the audience hoping for an encore!

P.S.:  You definitely want to see this movie in the cinema. Only a dark room and nothing to distract you from the plot will help you reveal the entire story.

Side Effects (D: Steven Soderbergh, USA 2013)

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