Side Effects – Steven Soderbergh and the twisting plot combined with the old chestnut. (film review)

Steven Soderbergh started his career with Sex Lies and Videotape and for that one film alone, he has a lot of credibility with me, no matter how high is “Ocean’s” count goes. He’s an interesting director, the  way he can move rather seamlessly between big budget, low substance, Hollywood blockbusters and high-grade art house films.  I’m not that familiar with his recent period, though I did catch Contagion and I sort of enjoyed that. He strikes me as a director who does as he likes, willing to withstand criticism from both sides of the art/accessible fence and he doesn’t read his reviews – something that always impresses me. (and may turn out to be a relief in this instance)

I saw Side Effects last night and the first thing to say is this is a film with multiple plot twists and some you really won’t see coming.  However, I do need to mention them in order to speak freely about the film. So if you are going to catch this one, see it before reading my review of it. Come back and check it out later.


The film, on the whole, is as good as everyone says.  The plot twists are really nice, and the story, while largely divided into four identifiable sections, is water tight and very clever in three of those sections. The third part is a little glossed over, even though Soderbergh leaves no plot holes (obviously a bug bare of his) that can almost be a bit of a flaw in the film because so much gets explained in rapid fire dialogue that it can seem superfluous. The acting is as good as everyone says, with stand outs being Jude Law and Rooney Mara – who I have to say is really great here. A lot of the success of the plot twists is because of her fine uncompromised acting. Even Channing Tatum puts in a good show, someone I haven’t seen on stage, stripping or acting.  It’s a fine thriller and if you like thrillers in that classic Hitchcock style, then you will have a great time.

There is a subtext to this film that I found problematical.


When looking through Soderbergh’s film history (and it is considerable – he is a work horse) I saw many films that I admire and like for strong female characters. The aforementioned Sex Lies and Videotape is one film, and of course Erin Brockovitch is a standout for the powerful female character. However, this film has some rather glaring problems when it comes to the way women are portrayed, and I do feel I need to mention them here. Therefore, here is another spoiler alert.


A book by Susan Faludi called Backlash highlighted the way pop culture in the 80’s was depicting career women through negative stereotypes.  She cited many examples, but some I remember distinctly were films like Fatal Attraction, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, that depicted women leaving the home to work as bringing destruction to their household. It was a good point made in the book, and one I have since exhibited an interest in.  Once you look out for it, you see films answering films all the time. In light of this, there are two problems I have with Side Effects.  One is the use of the lesbian couple as evil, and the other is the use of Rooney Mara as the actress for the main character.


If you are a fan of films like Primal Fear, where the original sweet person is really the bad person, then this film will appeal a great deal. Like Primal Fear, the linchpin of the success of the work lies in the well acted main role.  In the case of Primal Fear, it was Edward Norton who was nominated for an academy award for best supporting actor for his stellar efforts in that film. In this case it is Rooney Mara.  And here lies my beef.  One of the reasons Rooney Mara is so perfect for this role – an evil sociopath who fools psychiatrists into thinking she has serious depression and is a danger to herself and those around her – is because she played Lisbeth Salander so convincingly in 2011.  So convincingly, she was nominated for an academy award for her role in that film.


Lisbeth Salanader is a character who was abused by mental health officials, government officials and law men in every imaginable way in order to keep her quiet. She is a character created by Stieg Larsson who was appalled and devastated by the state of women without power in Europe.  Stieg Larsson wrote Lisbeth Salander for many reasons, but partly she was created to right a wrong in his own life; when he witnessed friends abusing a powerless female in his early youth and did nothing to stop it. The original title of the ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is ‘Men who hate women’.


Now, Side Effects lead character is a sociopathic female who kills her husband as an act of revenge and fakes being mentally ill so that she can get away with her crime. That this film was made one year after the enormous success of The Girl with the dragon Tattoo, and that the same actress is asked to play the role seemed a little off to me. It is impossible not to remember Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, given the close proximity of the films, and the similarity in subject matter. In fact I have already seen the comparison made repeatedly in reviews, usually in praise of Mara for being able to play both sides of the fence, as it were.   The question I have to ask, is why give the role to Ronney Mara?  It could not possibly have escaped anyone’s notice that she played Lisbeth Salander not more than twelve months prior, including her own.  In light of Faludi’s study of the 1980’s, the move looks completely calculated as a backlash against the pro-female message in The Girl with the dragon Tattoo.


Now if that reasoning seems a little spurious, couple it with one of the worst anti-female stereotypes in film ever – the plotting evil lesbians. I’m not saying lesbians can’t be bad in films. (Check out many Fassbinder films;  such as the bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to see the way evil lesbians should be portrayed)  I am saying, the lesbians plotting to ruin a man’s life, take away his wife and child, their ruefulness interspersed with images of them kissing for titillation, is an old chestnut that really should be put to bed (pardon the pun) these days. Side Effects combines Rooney Mara and Catherine Zetta Jones – two enormously attractive females – in sensual physical connection around a terribly violent crime and sadistic acts of mental anguish perpetrated against the sublimely perfect Jude Law.  It was impossible for a woman such as myself, who has seen so many films and read so much about the way women are portrayed in film, to miss the not-so-hidden “message.”


Films have been made like this with evil women, before to great and worthy success.  Final Analysis is a great example – plotting sisters. Vertigo is another excellent example – plotting lovers. However, to use the actress who played Lisbeth Salander in a role that reverses the good work done to highlight a genuine problem the book’s author was trying to reveal in an entertaining way, within twelve months and then have her also be an evil lesbian seductress cannot possibly be an accident. I’m too naive to think Soderbergh or writer Scott Z. Burns did this maliciously.  I am willing to bet they thought it might be a good joke, however.  Or worse, were so unconscious they never gave it much thought beyond the “cleverness” of casting Rooney Mara. After I did give this some thought, I generously assumed it was unconscious.

Whatever the motivation or intent, the result is a film that contains an “anti-message” that is delivered loud and clear.