Friday, 29 March 2013

Spoiling Side Effects: The Implications of its Revelations


I will be revealing major spoilers as this is not really a review but just more some of my thoughts on the film and films in general after seeing Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Channing Tatum.

So please consider that fair warning. If you've seen Side Effects, I hope you might still be here. If you haven't, please do yourself a favour and go away!

Side Effects is the story of Emily (Mara), a terribly depressed woman whose husband Martin (Tatum) has been in prison for four years for insider trading. On his release, things should suddenly get better but it appears Emily just gets worse, driving her car into a wall and nearly killing herself on more than one occasion. Prescribed a new drug by her therapist Dr Banks (Law), it seems to make things better with Emily feeling happier but on the other hand it does come with some side effects.


Emily starts sleepwalking and doing all sorts of strange things while she is sleepwalking. Martin returns home one day to find Emily cutting vegetables and she turns around at stabs him repeatedly before returning to her bed as if nothing has happened. Martin dies and Emily wakes with no memory of what happened.

With Emily facing prison or being locked up in a secure psychiatric ward, Dr Banks wishes to help her as he feels perhaps somewhat responsible for what has happened. He enlists the help of Emily's previous therapist Dr Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones) and tries to get to the bottom of what happened and why so that Emily will not face murder charges and will instead be considered Not Guilty for Reasons of Insanity.


It turns out that Emily and Dr Siebert hatched an elaborate plan when Emily first start attending therapy sessions and they became lesbian lovers determined to do a bit of insider trading of their own. By faking depression and side effects, the pair decided they could murder Martin and also affect shares prices of a new drug. They nearly get away with it but for the brilliance and determination of Dr Banks to get to the bottom of the story.

So basically it turns out that not only are two women the villains of the film, but their villainy also stems from their homosexual desires to be together. This is where I find the film very troubling. We've seen this idea of lesbian psychopaths a million times before in Hollywood thrillers and it does strike me as more than a little homophobic. The film could also be read as deeply misogynist due to the two women being so evil, manipulative and hideous.

At first Emily is just a victim character and we cannot help but sympathise with her but then we realise she is an incredibly skilled performer and manipulator. The two women have hatched a brilliant plan and use their skills of manipulation to fool the doctors, the courts and everyone involved in the case, even Emily's own husband.

However I don't want to just jump quickly onto my high horse and claim that this film is either misogynist or homophobic. Just because a film has a woman villain or a lesbian villain, does not make it either of these things. Imagine a world where we only allowed old white men to be the villains for fear of offending anyone else. It would quickly get boring and predictable.

So I have to see Side Effects as just a clever thriller that repeatedly pulls the rug out from under audiences. To have a twist that suggests a (sort of) happily married woman actually has a lesbian lover is unexpected. To have a seemingly minor character emerge as a sort of puppet master pulling strings is unexpected. To have a character who appears to be an innocent victim turn out to be a manipulative, evil murderer is, again, unexpected! So all Side Effects representations serve to produce clever and unexpected revelations.

When I walked out the cinema, I wondered why I hadn't heard anyone accusing the film of being misogynist or homophobic but to do this would totally spoil the film for everyone. However it used to be that films like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction attracted a fair amount of criticism for their depiction of women and homosexuality so I wondered what has changed.

Sometimes you start a film and you get an immediate sense that this director or writer hates women. You don't get this at all with Side Effects but that only serves to make the rug pull more unexpected.

I guess the reason I want to particularly highlight the homophobia issue is that Hollywood just does not offer many representations of happy, normal, healthy homosexuality. If there were more of these representations, perhaps I wouldn't immediately think the film was leaning towards homophobia when the villains turn out to be lesbians.

Therefore my message is... lets have more homosexual characters from Hollywood and not just nasty scheming villain types! I can't wait for the day when we have a gay cop in a Die Hard style action extravaganza! Hell perhaps it could be a neat twist for Die Hard 6. John McClane finally comes to terms with why his marriage never worked out and comes out of the closet! Or maybe that's too far...

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