America is one of the leading countries in pharmaceutical distribution. Garnering billions of dollars a year, patient after patient is seen by doctors for problems as minuscule as acne to more severe cases like psychosis. The answer to the problem of an unhealthy balance in the body or brain is pills that seem able to correct it. Pills have the ability to deplete or restore serotonin and dopamine levels and can also inhibit the brain’s transmission of messages that control unwanted thoughts and memories. Studies in the area of certain drugs benefits and their full affects are shoddy at best and actions committed while on designated drugs attest to the questionable nature of pharmaceuticals.
Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects follows two separate families whose lives are destroyed by a prescription of pills, inviting a well-needed dialogue on the increasing use and effectiveness of pills. Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison on charges of insider trading. His wife Emily (Rooney Mara) is attempting to adjust to his return as well as her recurring bouts with depression. After a suicide attempt, she finds herself in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who wholeheartedly believes in the healing power of modern medicine. Jonathan prescribes Emily a number of drugs before ultimately settling on Ablixa, a new highly advertised drug. However, while on Ablixa, Emily commits a crime, one that brings her life and the life of Jonathan crashing down around them. Jonathan becomes vexed in the attempt to prove he’s not to blame for the career damaging event.
Now I don’t have to worry about quitting smoking cold turkey… life though, that’s another story.
Soderbergh’s direction along with his cinematography (under the name Peter Andrews) makes the vision of Side Effects entrancing to watch. The first half of the film is a phenomenal dark psychological thriller with Emily’s depression being the forefront of the film’s aesthetic. There’s a moody filtered tint to the film and only characters being featured in a scene receive focus in tight, extreme close-ups. Other characters who aren’t contributing to action at the time are blurred almost to the point of being indistinct. Everyone initially becomes a victim that viewers can’t help but sympathize with as their brooding looking world just seems out of balance, skewed by camera angles and images are captured in slightly uncommon ways.
Scott Z. Burns’ script makes for an excellent debate on mental health in America. Jonathan at one point is asked why he left studying in England for a career in America, to which he replies that overseas if you need mental help and medicine you are deemed sick while in America it means you are getting better. Jonathan never asks Emily about her diet, activities, spirituality, or stress levels. Instead he gives her pills that will “stop her brain from telling her she’s sad.” Yet, initially there are no bad guys per say in Side Effects, an example of great character development that allows us to empathize with Jonathan’s personal decisions and desire to provide for his jobless wife and private-schooled stepson. Side Effects shows the gray area in pharmaceuticals, allowing viewers to understand not only Emily, but the doctors who have treated her as well.
Are your eyes seeing ugly things? Are you hearing unpleasant sounds? Is your skin itching? Don’t worry, we got pills for that.
Unfortunately the last half hour or so of the film feels like it’s the product of its own side effects; there’s disorientation, mania, and general what-the-effness through the film’s ridiculous twist that throws all the discourse and character development away for a cheap pretty common shock factor. Instead of sticking with the psychoanalytic thrilling aspect, Side Effects quickly becomes a made for television Lifetime Original Movie and ends the way every film about mentally unstable females usually tends to. What a shame, too, because it was right when I was in the edge of my seat trying to figure the whole thing out.
Despite the hazy ending and scrambled plot, Side Effects is thought-provoking and enjoyable. Jude Law stands out particularly for his portrayal, and Soderbergh’s pristine way of capturing images makes the film reminiscent of a Hitchcock film. If more films dare to confront such an important topic as mental health, then maybe society can start having a healthy debate about the topic and start the process for fixing our obviously broken system.
Take a Sip: any time someone takes pills
Take a Sip: whenever Emily slips back into depression
Take a Sip: for every bad thing that happens to Jonathan after the case
Do a Shot: when you’re confused by others’ actions.