FilmREVIEWS: Where Desire Will Get You

A Movie Double Bill

Side Effects
Director: Steven Soderbergh (2013)
Screenplay: Scott Z Burns
Starring: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law & Catherine Zeta-Jones

The Paperboy
Director: Lee Daniels (2012)
Starring: John Cusack, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey & Nicole Kidman

Reviewer Jacqueline Lucas Palmer

What do our movies tell us about our impulses, our desire, our wounding, and our eternal need to escape the present? In two thrillers, Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh, and The Paperboy by Lee Daniels, we mine our sickness, lust and greed; our darkness, racism and homophobia; our addiction to medication and escape – all in a trail of blood as long as the Oscar red carpet.

Indeed one effect of watching Soderbergh’s film is despair at the obsession with anti-depressants and the psychiatrists on the payroll of the pharma giants who trial and push medication. In this culture Dr Jonathan Taylor (Jude Law) is psyched on Red Bull, giving his wife beta-blockers to face a job interview, telling her: “It makes it easier for you to be who you are.” He also googles the side effects of a drug he had prescribed to his patient Emily (Rooney Mara), after she took a knife to her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) in a confused sleepwalking state. In this professional moneyed world of success and appearance, everyone compares the side effects of their drug of choice. In reality, American advertisements for anti-depressants feature women looking hopefully into their future. After driving into a wall, sleep- walking, standing on the edge of a subway platform and more, we rightly fear for Emily when she starts to chop her vegetables.

The power of the big corporation to fund Jonathan’s practice at a high price to him, feels like a comment on Soderbergh’s recent decision to withdraw from the control of Hollywood studios. Their funding may explain in part a cheesy plot turn involving Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dr Victoria Siebert, Emily’s former psychiatrist and seductress on the analytic couch. The interesting question of Emily as either cold hearted criminal, or victim of her medication, is side-tracked by plot twists and a witch hunt; Jonathan sees the “poisonous fog of depression” described by Emily come rolling his way as he struggles to get to the truth and defend his reputation.

In Side Effects the sex feels performative, both on the couch and under the cover of Emily’s new drug, in a back stabbing milieu, where insider traders can get away with anything. In Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, a dark tale set in the late 60s Florida of Pete Dexter’s novel, the sex is center stage and damage comes with the territory. Exploring the nature of desire, homosexuality and violent sex, Daniels’ film explores endemic racism in the complex relationship between Jack and Anita (Macy Gray), the family’s maid, who he loves like a mother and whose voiceover frames the story.

Charlotte Bless (played by Nicole Kidman) is the sexual center of the tale, swamped by her impulses and damaged by her past. Here she pursues a correspondence with Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), whose violent criminal and sexual leanings are likened to the reptilian swamps he survives in. The film weaves desire through every character, from Charlotte’s hyper-lustful, trashy Southern bombshell, to the young Jack (played by Zac Efron in Calvin Klein jeans and a six-pack) who yearns for her. Jack’s brother Ward, (played by Mathew McConaughey) is a man whose dangerous and violent homosexual practices hospitalize him. As Ward and partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) try to exonerate Hillary, they accompany Charlotte on a prison visit. Along with Jack, they play sexual voyeurs in a powerful scene involving a chained Hillary as he watches Charlotte, taking no-hands sex to a powerful climax. With an unflinching view of violent sadomasochistic sexual practices, the film sees Charlotte trapped in the alligator ridden swamps of Louisiana and Hillary’s fantasies.

These films suggest that damaged pasts threaten dangerous endings, and criminal actions. In Side Effects, Emily has not been recognised by her father and has been abandoned by her husband; in The Paperboy, Charlotte’s dark past is not given a name.

For damage there are valuable sessions of psychotherapy where our darker impulses can be explored and contained in the safety of the fifty-minute hour. By contrast, the scene involving Zac Efron’s jellyfish stings and Nicole Kidman’s natural remedy will last, as an enduring side effect, long after the heat of the swamp evaporates into crisp English spring.

Jacqueline Palmer, an integrative psychotherapist, is in private practice in North London and runs “A Return to Intimacy” workshops. With an MA in Film from the BFI, she has practiced photography and published poems and short stories on her path to becoming a psychotherapist.


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