Perspective can be one of the strongest devices for a storyteller. Depending on which character’s perspective we are offered, a single string of events can be shaped to tell countless stories. A character’s perspective can even be flawed, and we as the audience are only witnessing the story through their imperfect recollection. The Usual Suspects exploits our unquestioning faith in the accuracy of a character’s perspective to weave a convincing tale which deceives us, as well as an inquisitive detective. Rashomon explores perspective by giving us a recounting of a brutal assault as told by several witnesses, each one differing in details small and large.
Perspective is such a powerful force because of how we, the audience, connect with a film. We are given a protagonist and we see the events unfold through their eyes. In the case of The Usual Suspects, this could be purposefully construed. As with Rashomon, it could just an imperfect recollection. Either way, we expect to have a character whose perspective we grab onto, who will lead us through the plot and show us what to feel. It is precisely for these reasons that a sudden change of perspective can undermine our expectations and present a jarring twist which resonates throughout the film.
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released, the plot of which a well kept secret. There was limited, controlled promotion of the film prior to theatrical release as a means to assure that the film’s surprises were known to no one. The opening day came and audiences poured into theaters to watch as the film’s heroine, played by Janet Leigh, stole a sum of money from her work and absconds to meet her boyfriend. It is the set-up to the standard tale of a criminal who get’s in over her head. After a tense encounter with a highway patrolman, Leigh heads to the infamous Bates hotel to sleep before heading back on the road. We all know by now that she doesn’t get to check out.
For that first audience, it was assumed Leigh was the protagonist of the film. Everything up to that pivotal shower scene made the audience believe they were watching a movie about a wayward criminal. But then Leigh is quickly and unexpectedly murdered. And the audience has a jarring, forced change of perspective as they comes to realize that this isn’t a movie about a thief on the run, but instead about Norman Bates, the deranged titular psychopath.
You may have noticed that up to this point, I haven’t once mentioned Soderbergh’s latest film, which I am supposedly reviewing. This is because there is no way to accurately discuss the greatest achievement of this film, and coincidentally my biggest complaint, without discussing perspective and Psycho. Like Psycho, Side Effects pretends to be a movie it isn’t. Like Psycho, it shifts perspective partway through the film. Like Psycho, this change is brought about with a brutal and unflinching murder. If you have not guessed by now, the remainder of this review may contain a few spoilers.
Side Effects follows the young woman Emily Taylor, played by Rooney Mara, whose husband is recently released from a prison sentence. There is a brief moment of happiness as the couple embraces outside the prison, but it is soon evident that Mara suffers from depression. Their first night together shows the distracted Emily staring at the ceiling while her newly released husband performs his marital duties. This is followed by a generally anxious Emily, openly weeping at public functions, under a great, unseen weight. The depression becomes so unbearable that Emily attempts to hurt herself, driving her car into a concrete wall, which finally lands her in the care of a psychiatrist, played by Jude Law. What follows is a string of prescription antidepressants which could treat the depression, but which also presents potentially dangerous side-effects.
The film is set-up to make us believe that Mara is the heroine and that this is a film on the dangers of over-prescription. There are scenes showing the corruption in the pharmaceutical industry as psychiatrists are bought lunch by pharmaceutical reps, who use the time to push their latest drug. The psychiatrists in turn get paid to offer the prescription to their patients, as part of a drug trial. There are callous remarks about court settlements from disastrous side-effects. We expect Emily to be the tragic victim of her medicine’s side-effects – and so she is. While in an unconscious, sleep-walking state, a side-effect of her latest medication Ablixia, Emily unknowingly stabs her husband before returning to bed, leaving him to die on their kitchen floor. The next morning, she discovers the body and calls the police in a state of panic.
It is at this point the film changes perspective. For the remainder of the film, Jude Law’s psychiatrist becomes the protagonist. The film reveals its true motive. It is no longer a critique on the pharmaceutical industry, but is instead a thriller questioning the frailty of a legal system which equates guilt to conscious choice. Maybe Emily was never depressed to begin with, but instead wanted a way of killing her husband without being sentenced to prison. Her innocence jeopardizes the career and marriage of her psychiatrist who takes it upon himself to figure out if she is a murderer or a victim. This reversal in tone and style is pleasantly unexpected. Like Psycho, the director manages to subvert our expectations by shifting the perspective from one character to another.
Unfortunately, where Side Effects differs from Psycho is the inclusion of Emily as a prominent character after the change in perspective. In Psycho, Janet Leigh’s character was murdered, leaving the audience adrift for a new character and perspective to lead them through the remainder of the story. There is no immediate cue in Side Effects which leads the audience to attach the outcome of the film with the well-being of Jude Law’s psychiatrist. This leads to confusion as Jude Law’s character becomes the protagonist but our emotional connection remains with Rooney Mara’s Emily. It is this confusion that keeps Side Effects for being a great film.
There is no easy solution to the confusion caused by shifting perspective in Side Effects. Should the script have killed off Emily, as Psycho did with Janet Leigh, as a means of preserving the jarring change of perspective while avoiding the confusion? Possibly, but then we would have been robbed of Rooney Mara’s fantastic performance. Could Soderbergh have used visual cues, such as a change in hue, to help accentuate the change? Again, it is hard to say whether this would alleviate the problem or just create new ones. What we do know is that Side Effects is able to use perspective to deceive and shock us, in part due to the wonderful Rooney Mara, but the change in perspective and tone is disorienting when it is not immediately apparent.