What Did You Think?

What Worked, What Didn't Work? Steven Soderbergh's 'Side Effects'

Let's dig a little deeper... shall we?

Rooney Mara in Side Effects
Rooney Mara in Side Effects
Photo: Open Road Films

I wanted to wait a little while before bringing up a spoiler discussion concerning Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects which is easily the best film I've seen of this brief new year thus far. It's a film best seen without any information regarding its narrative in advance and while in this day and age that's tough, you will certainly be rewarded if you can manage.

I gave the film a glowing review prior to its release praising Soderbergh's direction, Scott Z. Burns' script, Rooney Mara's performance, Thomas Newman's score and Soderbergh's cinematography. And now, after seeing it twice, I would love to discuss it a little further without the need to hide behind its twists and turns... Hell, I can now finally mention it has twists and turns as even that knowledge can ruin the experience.

I'll keep my thoughts brief, since I've already praised the film, but I did want to mention a few things that didn't particularly work for me, but at the same time I also don't want to focus on the negative. So consider this just a bit of a conversation starter and hopefully you'll bring plenty more to the table.

Before getting into any complaints, there was one argument against the film that I don't quite understand. Some people said they were upset it wasn't the out-and-out slamming of drug companies early trailers seemed to suggest, or perhaps that's what was expected with Soderbergh at the helm. For me, what makes the film so great is how the first half is set up exactly like it's going to be a major take down of Big Pharma only to turn the tables in the second half.

The commentary on pharmaceutical companies is still very much present, but Soderbergh and Burns have used that expectation to their advantage and turned it into a thriller where your expectations are only working against your chances of putting all the pieces together before all is revealed. To me, that was one of the more brilliant moves in the entire narrative, particularly that moment after Emily stabs Martin (Channing Tatum) and then slides into bed as the camera dollies in on the pill bottle on the bedside table. Perfect.

My largest frustration with the story, however, involves most everything that happens around Vinessa Shaw's character, Dierdre Banks, wife to Jude Law's Dr. Jonathan Banks. Perhaps I missed a reason for her to be the way she was, but I felt her character was by far the weakest, especially in a film where all of the other characters are so well developed.

It begins when Jonathan and her are having lunch before her job interview and they're interrupted by Emily (Mara). Dierdre's face exhibits she's upset because she was hoping for the time to speak with her husband before the stress ate her up (understandable), but she seems to show no compassion for the clearly troubled girl in front of her who desperately needs help before she kills herself.

Side Effects
Photo: Open Road Films

Later on, Dierdre immediately jumps on Jonathan regarding the alleged sexual misconduct with a previous patient, seemingly unwilling to listen to what her husband has to say. This all comes back when she's sent pictures of Jonathan in a hotel lobby with Emily as well as photos of a nearly-naked Emily on a bed. Again, she won't listen to her husband's explanations and doesn't even stop to wonder who may have taken the pictures. This is the kind of short-sided behavior that pushes along the rom-coms we all hate so much, its hardly an ingredient that fits a smartly written thriller such as this.

After all, it doesn't take a detective to wonder who would have taken the pictures of Jonathan and Emily in the lobby as well as the picture of only Emily (not Jonathan) in the hotel bedroom? How does that even make sense?

Her abandoning of Jonathan in a clear time of need bothered me to such an extent the ultimate ending also rubbed me the wrong way as Jonathan picks his step-child up from school and goes home with Dierdre. Granted, Jonathan had allowed his obsession with the Emily case to take over his life to the point he forgot to pick up Ezra (Mitchell Michaliszyn) from school, but if that's his only sin some major apologizing needs to take place.

These things bothered me the first time I saw the film and to a lesser extent the second time, but it does beg the question as to whether these are details that ruin the experience or if you are able to overlook them and still enjoy the film. After all, virtually every movie is going to have issues on par with what I described above, it's a question of whether or not the overall narrative can make up for any flaws along the way.

For me, I was clearly able to overlook these issues. I understood what they were doing. To me it seemed Burns and Soderbergh were attempting to cast a shadow of doubt over Jonathan, and if the wife was so easily convinced her husband may be stepping out on her why wouldn't the audience begin second guess his actions? I guess I never followed that path of reasoning because I never believed Jonathan had done what he was being accused of.

There are a few other nits I could pick, but I don't want to dig too deep a hole before handing things over to you.

So now it's your turn, what worked in Side Effects for you and what do you believe didn't work? Speak up below and don't be afraid of getting into spoilers, this is an open forum.

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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

    I'm with you on her character, Brad. It did annoy me when I was watching at how she seemed to overreact to everything and not be supportive.

    Maybe it's just because he was alongside other actors that gave brilliant performances, but Channing Tatum's character was really bland and dull. I was never really invested in his character and felt like anyone could have given that performance. I don't think it's purely due to the plot / script that the movie started to pick up once his character died.

    • pop

      Tatum was only there to be the supportive husband and die 8 minutes later. He did good job with that. He was hardly in the script either.

      • pop

        But i agree anyone could have played that role lol

  • Ron Oneal Fresh

    Only saw it once, but the fact she was faking it the whole time. Eye drop tears, her supervisor walking into the bathroom as she faking sickness from the meds, the lesbian relationship. She did it b/c she for few years couldn't have a extravagant lifestyle. I didn't buy it.

    The absolute last shot of the film was fantastic really poetic. The first shot of the film kinda took away from the surprise of the first twist ... other than that, I really enjoy the beginning that people called 'slow'.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    The thing about Side Effects is that while it may not be the damning indictment of Big Pharma that some wanted, it is a pretty cynical commentary on our drug obsessed culture. For me, that was the whole point of the movie. Mara even has a line to that effect when she's laying out how she did everything and says "we just looked at the world." The implication being that only in a society where the first method of treatment is to prescribe a pill could this whole scheme even have been possible. To me, this is what gives the film replay value.

    With a thriller such as this, you need some interesting themes or subtext to keep you coming back. At first, I felt Side Effects was the kind of film you only need to see once. In the passing days, I've reconsidered that assertion.

    In addition to what I already said, I think the film is ultimately a cautionary tale about greed. Like A.O. Scott pointed out in his review in the NY Times, capitalism is a subject Soderbergh has explored in several of his films (from The Girlfriend Experience to The Informant!). Side Effects is yet another film which explores the subject and functions as a morality tale about an unchecked obsession with wealth. Soderbergh's final film couldn't have been more timely.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Rach/ Rach

    I thought that the beginning was very slow, and that the conclusion once everything had been revealed, also took awhile. I enjoyed the film, although not nearly as much as some others, I never really connected to the characters or story. But I definetely recognize that it's well made.

  • http://fortheloveofmovies.wordpress.com Abe M

    Im really glad you posted this because I was very excited to see this film and really enjoyed it...that is until the end. I too felt Diedre was a weak link and her walking out on Jonathan bothered me, but i quickly forgot about it as the story progressed. But the ending with banks re-united with his wife and kid really angered me. I was disappointed with Banks for taking her back. After the way she dismissed him and didn't even give him a chance to explain, I did not think she deserved him. I would have preferred it if, say, she came back to him to apologize and he told her to go f herself. They way they got back together just took away from the film's punch for me.
    That said, I still loved the film and will miss Soderbergh if/when he stops making films.

    • Torryz

      Well said Abe M. I too was ticked that he went back to his wife. Who just up and leaves her husband without listening to his side of the story? As far as I'm concerned, the wife character could have been eliminated in the script. I know it helps to create doubt for the audience but I was never fooled.

  • Listener521

    I was slightly annoyed that the pharmaceutical (and psychology) industry seemed to get of the hook and instead its the story of a psychopathic(?) woman. but on reflection we got a better film for it. Completely agree on Deidre I wanted Jude to walk way in the end but alas no.

    I also want to thank you for telling us to go see it without watching trailers. I went in knowing nothing and really enjoyed that experience. Once you find a reviewer you trust it would be a great if someone just told you what to go see (for those of us who are indecisive).

    One thing I want to bring up is the point-of-view of the film. When we see the stabbing, do you think it really happened like that or is that how she is explaining it? I can't imagine she really pretended to be asleep if no-one else was there but the victim. So if that is her imaging of the scenario what else is real and what is fake?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I think it happened like that, I don't think there was any trickery in what we were shown, just deception in storytelling.

  • http://cinemmaconfessions.blogspot.com Gautam

    Brad, No doubt I liked the film, especially its unexpected twists but I have two serious issues with the film. Would like to know what you think of it ?

    First, The way Emily and Dr.Siebert pulled off the whole thing, the details they worked on, obviously means that both are smart, cunning people. What really bugged me was how easily they were tricked by Dr. Banks. Come on, just by seeing Siebert and Banks converse, Emily believes both have some deal going on. Isn't that pretty dumb. Same goes with Siebert, when she sees Banks giving the statement in favor of Emily, didn't she think that something fishy is going on. I believe to build character that are smart, especially Mara's and then suddenly to turn them dumb was a bit silly. I think, the film would have benefited if Emily had the final say, by tricking Banks again.

    Second issue, I don't have much to say, except I wasn't convinced by Emily's reason to kill Martin. Nowhere is it implied that Emily hated Martin to the degree that she wanted to kill him. Neither is she crazy about Siebert otherwise she won't have believed Banks in the first place. If she killed him for money, well then, again that's also not too convincing.

    Overall, in the middle of the film I thought I am going to love this film, but in the end these two issues stuck out like a sore thumb.

    • bill

      Huge plot hole: Emily had no way of knowing she wouldn't be found guilty by a jury, so it was way too risky for her to kill her hubby. If not found guilty, she had no way of knowing a shrink/s could get her out.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

        It was a gamble. I don't see that as a "plot hole." For her, the possible reward was worth the risk.

        • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

          I agree, that's not a plot hole in the least. Given Emily's psychological issues and, as we learn, sociopathic behavior, I certainly wouldn't consider her killing of Martin or her motivation for doing so as illogical in any way.

    • James

      I believe it was all explained that everything that went wrong with her life was because of Martin of course all brought to light by her psychiatrist, I also don't believe she would resort to murder but how can you deny she is a psychopath

      • Gautam

        In either case, it's film's weakness. Even if she is a psychopath, that hasn't been made clear in the film. And yes, just by inserting a line of dialogue that everything that went wrong in her life was because of Martin doesn't justify her motive of murder.

        But I have bigger issue with the fact that how can she suddenly turn so dumb when she started so smart. Any one with a basic intelligence would trust her/his lover more than someone she or he plotted against. But due to some strange reason in the film, all the intelligence with which Emily tricked the whole world is trashed into the bin, and she comes out looking like a fool. That's exactly why I believe it would have been a much better climax if Emily had found out a way to outwit Banks again, and run away with the money.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      To your first point I can understand your frustration, but the alternative is a much longer film or one of those awful "five months later" moments. Instead Soderbergh and Burns built paranoia in Emily through Banks' ability to leave her completely helpless and in his hands. She knew she had no control and any attempt to fight back would simply make her look even crazier.

      To your second point we never get full details on their relationship or the four years Martin was in jail, it's Soderbergh asking us to trust the storytelling. You can ask questions, but ultimately I think that comes down to whether you were fully convinced by the character, which it sounds like you may not have been.

      • Gautam

        Fair enough though I somehow feel Soderberg took the easier option in both the cases. While it might have meant a 10 minutes, longer film, I certainly won't have minded it, considering how well the film was playing, until the last 15-20 mins. And if the extra 10 minutes, made those ultimate moments better, and the overall film a more flawless affair, I don't see any reason not going for it.
        I personally think a director shouldn't try to shun important choices just because it means an extra few minutes. And in any case Side Effects isn't a very long film to begin with.

  • James

    The big reveal wasn't done where it was "a pull the rug right from under you" moment. I'm glad I went in without knowing anything, which is really how all movies should be viewed but I was expecting more twists, I suppose.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Yes, I loved how it was revealed, like a natural development in the story rather than a "dun, dun, dun" kind of thing.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Aleonardis/ Aleonardis

    My issue with Side Effects is, without the "Big Pharma" angle and the pill obsession commentary, it's merely just a Lifetime movie. Twists and all. It just so happens to have AMAZING performances and is very well made.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      That commentary, I would say, is still there, it's just not blatant and beaten over the head. Your's, mine and everyone's distaste for Big Pharma is what drives the first half and I don't think the film, for a second, gives up on that hatred it simply doesn't focus on it.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Aleonardis/ Aleonardis

        The first third or so is the Big Pharma commentary set-up basically while the rest of the story starts after Martin's death. My issue still remains. The thriller part of the story is just very cliche and very "lifetime." The rest of the story may still rely on that Big Pharma commentary and that does elevate it, but because it's so predictable I don't think it's as worthy of a re-watch.

      • Chuck

        Respectfully, I painfully watched the superb demonstration of the debilitating, life robbing effects of a real clinical DEPRESSION, slowed , out of focus, people looking at you or are they, heavy, cranking out hours of sleep x 10000. Thoughts of suicide. Friends leaviing you. Spouses taking off.

        Thus it is not a slam on big Pharm, because...

        it shows why we need meds, and thank goodness for those companies.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AdamsLostApple/ AdamsLostApple

    I wasn't on board with the film until 30 minutes in when Channing Tatum exits the film. Up until that point I thought Soderbergh was just taking us on a character study with sledgehammer swipes at big pharma. There were so many "casual" name references of real depression medications. Thank god the film takes a sharp turn away from that and leads us down the rabbit hole.

    Having only seen the film once and now knowing the twists and secrets, does it really call for multiple viewings?

  • http://smartfilm.blogspot.com SmartFilm

    I had to transcribe an interview for 'Side Effects' (for work) before I saw it and ****ing Jude Law literally gave away the fact that Mara's character was faking it all along. Up to that point, I had avoiding all trailers for the film because I wanted to go in clean... and then ***ing Jude Law had to go and ruin it.

    Although I still really enjoyed the movie, I just wonder what the difference would have been had I gone in not knowing that knowedlge beforehand as it TOTALLY changes the film.

    I guess it's no different than going back and watching a movie for the second time, however that recollection of the initial surprise ('Oh man, this part was such a shocker the first time I saw it!") has staying power, hence I feel a little robbed.

    I still gave it a good review but it just wasn't what I would call an excellent film. But I can only guesstimate my reaction had I went in blind.

    This brings me to the point I wanted to raise-- how important is it to be completely ignorant to any plot twists within a movie? Now that goes two ways. To use an example, it's both not knowing that Leo actually was crazy all along (Shutter Island) and equally important, it's not knowing that there is a twist ending in the first place.

    Even the expectation of a twist skews your perspective on the film while you're watching it. Someone writing up a review about how good the movie is and that the end has a twist they just didn't see coming just makes it so that everyone reading him/her is going in anticipating a twist, which they will later claim they saw coming. I'm kind of rambling here but I think you guys understand the gist of the sentiment.

    So what do you guys think, how essential is it to your experience of a film to not know something like the fact that there is a twist coming and how does that alter your experience of the film?

  • Jeff

    I enjoyed the movie but it's definitely one of those that you can't think too much about or you begin to find the holes in logic throughout...so I just watch and don't try to hard to analyze it while I watch. For me the biggest flaw was the fact that Jude Law remained her shrink when he had essentially been "removed" from his profession due to the scandal. That a person with his reputation would have retained total control of the incarceration of Emily, for me, made that last act far too implausible.

  • SP1234

    Loved the movie, the only thing I didn't get was why Rooney was commited back to the hospital at the end, even after helping expose Zeta-Jones' part in the cover up. That was the only thing that confused me.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/mrag/ Tom Wohlsen

    My apologies in that I have not studied all the comments so far. But my reactions are:
    1) You needed a "star" like Channing if only to misdirect where the story may go. His 'star power' made one think he had more to the story than he did.
    2) Sort of along those lines I was wondering what a Zeta-Jones was doing in the story. At the end you understand how critical she is, but otherwise she seems a minor cast member for the most part.
    3) Why did anyone need to kill Channing anyway? I really missed that key point if there was one. Why not just 'play the market,' make the money and run off with your girlfriend? Why even wait until he was released?
    4) For prurient interest only perhaps, I could have 'tolerated' some more Mara on Zeta-Jones action. Either Mara was really into women or she was more simply a manipulator. Seemed like a quick cop out at the end and it wasn't clear.
    5) Jude Law was kind of self absorbed in himself. Would the movie be that bad if Mara and Zeta-Jones instead "lived happily ever after" and Law remained screwed?
    6) Jude Law's wife-she was kind of quick to run out the door.
    7) I think the point was made that big pharma is not as nice as we would want to believe. But it was also good misdirection.

    The movie was entertaining and I'd recommend. Not sure (based on one viewing) it was as good as everyone is saying. My $0.02 on the matter.

  • Chuck

    I just watched the film, a 9 - 10 !.
    1. The first half camera/pacing/timing/focus shows what it it like to be clinically depressed, multiplied by 10000. You can see the heaviness in her walk and arms. I don't think it was a slam against Pharm, rather a demonstration of why we need meds.
    2. The WIFE leaving the Jude Law Husband, is just true to life. We all know couples who split because - only because - "she did not buy into this"- that is not a tony life style. The way divorce courts work, the husband esp MD is forced to pay to keep up her previous life style, if they split. Obviously the reviewer is still on a life's learning curve. I would give that part an A, the ending is OK and nice, and "in real life" if he was made "whole" again, that too is possible, but not probable.

    3. Thus, all the female characters in this movie are double dealers,selfish, and out to get money. period. Is this movie a slam against WOMEN ?

  • Vagelis

    There is big hole plot that kept me away from liking the movie that much.
    Dr. Siebert was caught by the police because she confessed to a wired Emily.
    That means that the truth revealed that Dr Siebert and Emily were partners on a intended and scheduled crime for money. Consequently was revealed that Emily was acting her madness and she where not a psychopath. So why she is still in the orders of Banks and later in the mental institution instead of jail at the end?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

    My question:

    I liked the film but am confused. So Jude Law's character is given authority tio determine how long Mara remains institutionalized right, and thus by that power he is able to lock her away at the end; But why doesnt the system/authrorites step in and take away that power from him when he is also under the radar for possibly not treating the patient correctly; or did I miss something? I definitely need to see this again.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/amorendios/ john carter

    I am a stickler for details and I just had some quick questions about the end. Is the audience supposed to believe that that is the same pysch ward she was in earlier? Another thing that bothered me was the the way Emily was portrayed at the end. All she says is, "Better. Much Better". Is the audience supposed to draw their own conclusion about her condition or is the director try to lead the audience to a certain conclusion? The whole scene is just weird. She walks around slow and dull like she is being drugged, but then her comment, "Better. Much Better.", sounds like a statement from a person who is lucid. I got the feeling she was already plotting or planning her next move.

  • tadatadamama

    When Emily was wearing the wire to bust Seibert, the truth was revealed that they plotted together to influence the stock value to their mutual benefit. Why wouldn't Emily have been arrested too? I felt that once Banks had Emily's confession in the psych ward there was no doubt that he had enough to nail both of them. Why would Emily have agreed to implicate herself and why wasn't she held accountable? I understand she couldn't be retried for the murder but wouldn't the insider trading and conspiracy have been separate charges?