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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 17, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Accent

Review: Psychological thriller offers unexpected twists

“Side Effects” may include suspense, twists and enthrallment. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns offer a psychological, Hitchcock-esque thriller that is subtle and challenges expectations.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a woman suffering from depression, is reunited with her husband, Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum), who is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. After Emily attempts suicide when she “just lost control,” her psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), prescribes her a new antidepressant named Ablixa. The relatively untested drug works better than previous antidepressants Emily used while her husband was in prison. But there are unintended side effects to Ablixa that disrupt Emily and Martin’s lives.

There is a good balance of screen time for the two protagonists, Emily and Jonathan. While we see Emily try to remain strong despite her depression and many ineffective antidepressants, we see Jonathan search for the reason for Emily’s depression and how to solve the issues caused by her side effects.

“Side Effects” is one of most tactful portrayals of depression in contemporary cinema. Soderbergh wisely refrains from overdramatizing Emily’s depression and focuses more on the character’s attempts to maintain hope and discover the truth.

The cinematography and soundtrack, composed by Thomas Newman, enhance the dark and muted tone of the film, reflecting the characterization of depression and its effect on Emily. The film never needs dramatic music to convey her internal struggle, or to rely on jump cuts to evoke tension.

“Side Effects” owes its believable and honest atmosphere to the talented cast. The actors on-screen embody their characters’ personalities seamlessly. Mara naturally portrays Emily’s uncertainty as well as her desire to triumph over her depression.

Though Tatum delivers a solid performance as a caring but not overbearing husband, his character is not as developed as Emily’s. There could have been more scenes with Emily and Martin reconnecting. There is no scene that cements the fact that they’re in love enough for Emily to have waited four years for Martin.

Ablixa treats Emily’s depression by giving her more energy and libido, but there’s a constant theme of Emily lacking control. Eventually, the audience, the people Emily loves and Emily herself can’t trust her actions. Her uncertainty becomes anxiety and even fear.

One scene exemplifies Soderbergh’s ability to convey characters’ thoughts with cinematography alone. Emily sees an advertisement for Ablixa while waiting for the subway. Her expression reveals how she longs to be as content as the woman in the advertisement, but she is unsure about taking another pill. She then turns around and sees a police officer watching her for a few moments. This scene not only opens up Emily’s mind but also silently depicts how society views and attempts to reach out to people with depression.

The third act delves into some far-fetched issues with Emily. Her character changes at a fundamental level, but the change doesn’t break the film’s tone. The fear of Emily’s unpredictability becomes a more and more prominent theme. By the climax, it seems nobody — not even the audience — has all the answers.

“Side Effects” is an enigmatic psychological thriller where the audience feels what Emily feels. It is one of those films that has enough clues and twists to ensure multiple viewings. “Side Effects” will have a strong and unexpected effect on those who enjoy authentic drama and suspense.

Three Stars

Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum and Jude Law star in “Side Effects,” an unsettling story about one woman’s clinical depression.

Michael Tkaczevski can be reached at mtkacze1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @Mike_Tka