Though it is difficult to get a solid number, it is estimated that over 10 million Americans are currently being treated for depression through the use of prescription drugs. Counseling and exercise play a large part in treatment as well, however, prescription drugs have the most profound and direct effect on patient behavior. That most of the drugs being taken are relatively new and seem to be replaced constantly by something “better,” lends credence to the notion that those that take them are nothing more than guinea pigs and that the medication they are taking might not be completely effective if they are as interchangeable as they seem to be.
This is a fascinating subject that should be the focus of a major documentary. Until that gets made we have Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, a film that begins as an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry and greedy doctors who fall under their sway, then turns into something else all together. There’s no question this is engaging entertainment and it sweeps you away, hurtling down a different narrative path before you even know what hits you. Whether you’re willing to follow it depends on your tolerance of being manipulated.
The film begins at the scene of a crime. We see a bloodstained floor and a present that’s gone unopened only to see things shift to three months earlier where we meet Emily (Rooney Mara), a little slip of a thing who works in Manhattan and is nervous about reuniting with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who’s just finished a four-year prison sentence for insider trading. Her anxiety becomes overwhelming as she breaks down in public and tries to harm herself by purposely wrecking her car. She comes under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who suggests that she try a new drug called Ablixa, that he contends will set her on the right track. That she has to sign a release to take it, because the doctor has agreed to run a trial on it for $50,000, does not give her pause.
Needless to say, the drug works but the side effects Emily exhibits are far beyond dry mouth and nausea. She takes to sleepwalking, going so far as to make breakfast in the middle of the night without knowing it, and zones out on the subway train, riding all the way to the end of the line and back without knowing about it. Then, Emily’s behavior takes an even more extreme turn.
It’s at this point that the film switches gears. To give you any more details would be doing Soderbergh and his cast a disservice. Suffice it to say that Banks finds himself under investigation, having to take the fall for prescribing Emily the medication responsible for her actions. The ethical questions revolving around this issue aren’t belabored which is to Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ credit. The director has always trusted his audience to be able to connect the dots and that skill is certainly needed here, not only in dealing with the moral issues at hand but also in following the plot during the film’s second half.
The cast here is exceptional, all of them conveying a sense of urgency that fosters believability in the story. In many ways, this is a film about isolation. We come to realize that each person is working toward their own end by themselves, whether they realize it or not. Soderbergh underscores this throughout with shots that frame many of the characters alone or at the far sides of the frame. The only real connection though is inspired as Burns begins to experience many of the same difficulties as his patients and requires medication of his own.
In the end, Side Effects is a film that serves two mistresses and satisfies them both. Effective as an expose on the modern medication epidemic and the corporate greed that propels it, as well as a dark mystery, Soderbergh and crew effectively remind us that psychosis comes in various shapes and forms, some of which no amount of medication can hope to cure.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.