Reviewing a movie like Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects can be challenging. Like so many thrillers since The Usual Suspects (1995) and The Sixth Sense (1999) wowed audiences with their narrative-altering conclusions, the film features a shocking reversal that I cannot, in good conscience, spoil. Instead, I’d like to spend the next few hundred words discussing the very concept of the third-act twist, whose success is predicated on five fundamental principles.
One: the reversal has got to build from the story. I don’t care that the Jigsaw killer was hospital extra number three all along because Saw (2004) never pertained to that guy. In contrast, Side Effects opens on the scene of a violent crime around which every element of the plot revolves, including its shocking twist. The first half of the movie flashes back to three months earlier as we’re introduced to the key players involved: Martin (Channing Tatum), who just got out of prison; Emily (Rooney Mara), his clinically depressed wife; and Jonathan (Jude Law), the psychiatrist who prescribes her a new drug. The second half deals with the aftermath of the incident as we try to ascertain who’s responsible (as opposed to who did it).
Two: the movie should engage us before the final reveal. Sure, The Number 23 (2007) ends on a surprisingly sensible note, but that doesn’t change the fact we had to sit through ninety minutes of some bloke adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing the numbers two and three. Side Effects, on the other hand, engrosses us with its depiction of a culture that’s surrendered itself to a new form of complacency made available by psychiatric drugs. All the characters prove as fascinating as they are compromised, except for Jonathan’s wife, Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw), who seems to believe that a man should attend to her every emotional need when she gets passed up for a promotion but that she doesn’t have to return the favour when he tries to clear his own professional reputation.
Three: the twist must take us by surprise. There are few things in cinema more excruciating than having a thriller like Secret Window (2004) or The Skeleton Key (2005) dangle its offbeat solution for an hour and a half when you figured it out five minutes in. Conversely, Side Effects had me completely fooled during most of its runtime. As a result, I had no trouble relating to the hero’s confusion and sense of betrayal. This proves crucial because the character also goes through a transformation of sort, crossing ethical boundaries that one can only overlook in light of a muddled state of mind.
Four: the reveal has to make sense. The conclusion to Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003) invalidates the entire movie because it requires us to believe that, the whole time, one person was able to drive two vehicles at once and make various weapons appear out of thin air. Soderbergh, in contrast, considers every single element of his narrative, inviting us to look back and pinpoint a handful of inconsistencies supporting the lie. It’s worth noting as well that Side Effects goes on for a full half hour after the shocking twist. In other words, the director uses the reversal to propel his story, not as a substitute for proper drama.
Five: the new reality presented by the twist has to be more compelling than the old one. This is where Side Effects falters. The first half of the film promises an in-depth critique of the way we, as a culture, have allowed pharmaceutical companies to run amuck on our very minds, seduced by the promise of quick fix solutions to problems that go to the very depths of our souls. It portrays a mental health system susceptible to corruption at every level, owing to an inherent conflict of interest. It hints that Soderbergh’s final cinematic production will prove his most ambitious.
Unfortunately, the second half of Side Effects squanders all of that potential in favour of the sort of pot-boiler plot one might find in a John Grisham novel. The transition is brilliantly executed, but I feel let down, like someone who promised me a Lamborghini just dumped a ten-speed bicycle on my front porch and yelled, “Surprise!” For the record, this happens to be a pretty good bike with adjustable anti-lock brake handles and the works. Still, I can’t shake the image of that shiny new sports car out of my head.