Side Effects

Believe the trailers (like the one embedded below) that tell you Side Effects is a depression medication laced mystery of pill-popping paranoia and blood-curdling chills. There’s a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence, and a compelling narrative grounded in a couple of the key societal ills of our time.

Before you see it – and you should see it if you like suspense thrillers of the kind Hitchcock used to make, but with an added dose of topicality – think about the world we live in, where people are more likely to take medical advice from a commercial during a televised sporting event than they are from expertly educated medical professionals. Consider the way we want quick pharmaceutical fixes to our psychological problems instead of taking the time to alter the patterns of our day to day lives and our expectations of what life will be like.

Side Effects is a story for people who, after gaining most of the world, discover there’s still a hole in their souls, so they make a mad grab for what bits they’ve missed in hopes that what they’re lacking is somewhere in what little they don’t yet have.

The so-called depression these “haves” experience isn’t a real grief. It’s simply the emptiness one should expect when one fills one’s life with material mist. The soon-diagnosed depression then is a symptom, and the soon-prescribed anti-depressants are a mask. The root problem is greed.

Watching Side Effects, I was reminded of the story Jesus told about the clever manager who when faced with termination quickly cooks the books to make friends among his boss’ clients. Rather than being angry, the boss commends the manager for being so smart. Jesus recommends the disciples learn from the manager’s example and use worldly means (which Jesus calls the “lesser things”) to get ahead in this life, as proof that they’re capable of handling the “greater things” of eternity.

Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects‘ director, and screenwriter Scott Burns are masters at making wise use of the things of this world. In their collaborations on The Informant!, Contagion, and now Side Effects, they’ve played off American society’s most present obsessions to create three of the most topical and tricky movies of the past half decade.

Interestingly, they’ve done all this while bypassing perhaps our most explicit fear – terrorism. Perhaps they see that obsession as a distraction from the greater evils of greed and pervasive growing impatience. Admittedly, I’m probably reading too much into their storytelling choices, but I wonder, if Americans weren’t so greedy or impatient, what specific societal ills might be solved? We’d almost certainly be a lot happier, and we’d probably need a lot less oil.

It’s a bit dubious to discuss Soderbergh’s filmography as an indictment of impatience. The man has made films and switched genres with unparalleled speed. In fact, he’s so disenchanted with theatrical filmmaking, reportedly, that Side Effects will be his last theatrically released feature. Soderbergh is credited with igniting the independent film movement in the early nineties, and he’s never stopped innovating. His impatience seems not to be with the craft of filmmaking but rather with the old systems in place to distribute his work and measure its success. He is impatient with the broken systems. This is as true in his process as it is in the themes of what he has produced.

See Side Effects, both because it’s Soderbergh’s last theatrical release (presumably) and because it’s just a very good movie. More importantly though, see as Side Effects sees. Notice our obsessions for what they are – symptoms of greater ills and smokescreens that keep us from seeing the ills that are truly tearing us apart. And keep an eye on Soderbergh. Who knows what he’ll do next?