Side Effects opens with a wide shot of New York, and through a series of cuts, brings the viewer closer and closer to a shot of a window in a building with many windows. Through this window, we enter into the story. Through this opening sequence, my interest was piqued, and I started watching the film very closing. This opening sequence is just like the opening sequence of Psycho, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces. Stephen Soderbergh, it seems to me, assigned himself the task of making a film that incorporates many of the elements of Psycho, to tell a story of the current times about mental illness and guilt.
I wouldn’t have noticed the opening sequence if I had not just watched Psycho last month, and perhaps would not have taken notice of that opening sequence either, except that I watched a “Making of” DVD extra that talks about how Hitch wanted a crane shot of the city, in this case, Phoenix, to slowly zoom in, eventually to the window where we find Marion Crane and her lover Sam. It proved impossible, so instead, the film opens with a series of shots that close in on the window, just like in Side Effects.
Beyond this point, there will be spoilers.
Once we get into the action of the story, pretty quickly, Channing Tatum is killed off. It’s pretty rare for a big star like Channing Tatum to die so early in a movie, but is a tip of the hat to Hitchcock’s killing off of Janet Leigh’s character so early in Psycho. In both cases, the murder comes as a bigger surprise, because no one expects the biggest star to die so early on.
My least favorite part of Psycho is the psychologist’s speech at the end of the film. Pompously, he explains that Norman suffers from multiple personality disorder, having subsumed his mother’s personality into himself. So it is the mother part of Norman that is guilty for the murders.
It is clear from Side Effects that popular ideas about psychologists have radically changed since 1960. Instead of the psychologist of Side Effects “explaining” the strange things we’ve witnessed, Jude Law’s Jonathan Banks is more of a detective, retracing steps and trying to figure out what the hell is going on, like the private investigator in Psycho. And like the PI, Banks would have been collateral damage… except he manages to outwit everyone else. On the flip side, Victoria Seiberg, Emily’s first psychotherapist, expresses our anxieties about the profession.
A week element of Side Effects is the tawdry affair between Emily and Victoria, but I started thinking about it as a parallel to the relationship between Marion and Sam. Their onscreen chemistry is pretty much nil, and the reason for their secrecy (he’s in debt because he’s divorced!) seems pretty weak. Maybe in 1960 such a relationship would be shocking, but even Doris Day movies played around with the possibility of sex outside of marriage. Perhaps Soderbergh was poking fun at the “shock value” of a lesbian plot of insider trading. And perhaps Hitch was also making a bit of fun, what would have been centrally important in a mainstream film, the love interest, is just a small, mundane element of the larger picture.
The final sequence of Side Effects is a reverse of the opening sequence, starting at a window, and expanding out into the world. It doesn’t have the same power as Psycho‘s ending, which echos its opening, but instead of looking at the exterior of a building, looks at the exterior of a person. Norman is dressed as Mother, and there are successively closer shots,until we only see the fly on Mother’s hand, with her voice over, saying “she wouldn’t even hurt a fly.”
One element of Psycho that makes it stand apart today is the amazing performance by Anthony Perkins. Side Effects doesn’t particularly distinguish itself. Rooney Mara is good (she was excellent in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but not uncanny. Jude Law was better in this than he’s been in a while, it was refreshing.
Side Effects is not the movie Psycho is by a long stretch, but it does beg the question, why would society consider the real Emily any less crazy than the pretend Emily?