Side Effects: Cheek Your Pills…

Rooney Mara Side Effects

I saw the film Side Effects based on the excellent review given to me by a friend who works in the psychiatric field.  I expected the Side Effects to be an almost documentary type film about, well, the side effects of drugs.  I had no idea it would be a complete “trust no one” conspiracy theory medical thriller that will have you running your psychiatrist’s license plate numbers the next time you leave their office.

This film is personal to me, not only because one of my parents works in the mental health profession, but also as a young woman who has taken a number of medications over the course of her life.  This drugs that this film focuses on are not illegal narcotics, but certainly something just as potent.  These are the pills prescribed to us by psychiatrists — those working in a field which used to be based on psychotherapy and long-term treatment but has recently gone the way of pill-pushing.

However, the overall message of the film isn’t limited to such drugs. 

I’ve taken a number of prescriptions — not necessarily psychiatric drugs, but prescriptions nonetheless, that have made me feel at times crazy, sick, and angry.  I understand what it feels like to be bounced between doctors, one prescribing a medication for symptom X, another prescribing you a medication for symptom Y, only to find that symptom Y is a side effect of symptom X and that you really now have symptom Z which requires yet another prescription.  It’s hard, these days, to be a patient.  Doctors are overburdened, under-paid, and over-stressed.  Psychiatrists see you for 15 minutes and some will change or adjust your medications so abruptly that you feel like you’re losing your mind.  When you go back, 2 weeks later, they will look at you with vacant eyes and report that surprisingly, you are the only person who has had such side effects.

But the film also takes on the big elephant in the room: pharmaceutical company paranoia.   There is a surprise ending here that I did not see coming, and I’m sure those with a psychology background could analyze the relationships outlined in this film far better than I could.

This film is excellent.  It is mostly character-driven, suspenseful, and well-written.

As usual, I will review the good and not-so good points:

The Good:

Jude Law Side Effects

Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta Jones:  Rooney Mara, freshly washed of all her Lisbeth makeup and excessive piercings, plays Emily — a fresh, young, married woman with a husband who has recently been released from prison.  Since she shares much of Lisbeth’s affect: the monotone voice, the deadpane stare, the general lack of emotive responses, it is hard for me to review her performance.  From the moment we meet her, she looks completely depressed and lifeless, as if breathing in and out is a labor of love for her.  From what we see, Emily is an eager-to-please young wife who is overcome by the stress that comes along with being a young working woman adjusting to having her spouse home.

After a suicide attempt, she begins treatment with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), one of the dime a dozen pill-pushers, who starts Emily on a series of SSRI anti-depressants — all of which come with their own side effects.  Mara goes through the motions of taking these pills and enduring the horrible side effects — zero sex drive, nausea.  After Emily tells Banks that she’s had enough of the SSRIs, he contacts her former doctor, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in order to gain insight into her previous psychiatric treatment.  Law looks remarkably older and more mature in this role, and there is a sincerity to his character that surprised me, as you can see that he is trying to do right by his patient.  It’s quite a change from some of his previous work, as here he appears to have largely checked his ego at the door.

Side Effects Rooney Mara

Zeta-Jones, from the moment she appears on screen, looks frightening to me.  For such a beautiful woman, there is something off about her, a wild and almost disturbed look in her eye.  Siebert suggests that Banks start Emily on Ablixa, a new experiemental drug.  When Banks calls to inquire about the drug, he is told that he will receive generous reimbursement as a participant of the new clinical trial.  Emily reports that she feels better on the Ablixa, except for the occassional sleepwalking.  Seems like a win-win situation.

Except that one night, Emily just happens to accidentally stab her husband and kill him during a sleepwalking episode.  Oops.  There is a court case during which Banks is reprimanded for not monitoring Emily, and Emily agrees to plead insanity in order to be charged as not-guilty in exchange for staying in a mental institution until she can be psychiatrically cleared.  Here, we see Emily is an unfortunate victim of the system — of a well-meaning, but distracted doctor, of the pharmaceutical companies who do not disclose the severity of their drugs’ side effects.

Catherine Zeta-Jones Side Effects

What we don’t see is that she is a complete sociopath who has been in cahoots with Siebert the entire time.   It’s a terrifying moment when we realize that she and Siebert have been playing Banks the whole time — Emily’s husband’s murder was not an accident — it was staged in order for the duo to take down Banks.  It is here that we see that Siebert is an entity more frightening than Jason or Freddie: a beautiful, intelligent psychiatrist with absolutely no conscience.  At the moment in the film when this comes to a head, Emily and Siebert share an almost frantic intimate moment that, on paper, sounds like a scene that everyone in America would love to see: Catherine Zeta-Jones making out with another woman.  However, the entire sequence made my skin crawl as we realize what damaged goods these woman are.  In the end, Banks comes out on top by essentially double-crossing Emily and having her institutionalized indefinitely.

The Not-So Good:

The ending:  I didn’t like the fact the the film ended by having both females put away —  the madwomen in the attic, so to speak — Emily in an institution and Siebert in prison.  Emily is institutionalized by Banks, and as an extra punitive measure, he decides to put her on Thorazine, the side effects of which include dizziness, weight gain, hair loss, and a host of other awful maladies.   It bothered me that Banks’s character turned into the heroic, once-wronged male doctor who came out on top.  I also felt cheated because I was rooting for Emily.  I felt for her when she rushed into the bathroom and vomited at work because her new medication made her nauseous.  I felt for her when she couldn’t have sex with her boyfriend because her libido was shot to hell.  I believed her depression, which wasn’t hard given her generally flat affect, and I wanted her to take down Big Pharma and make them pay for what (we thought) she’d done accidentally.

All in all, this film says a lot about our society — our greed, what we are willing to give up in order to live “normally,” and the price we pay for our decisions.  I think in another hundred years, people will look back at films like this and think, “did people really live like this?”

I would say a solid 8/10

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8 replies

  1. I just saw this film myself and didn’t think about the ending as much until I read this. Hmm, the thorazine was overkill wasn’t it?
    I really enjoyed it!

  2. Thanks for the review. This was on my radar but now I’ll definitely check it out!

  3. The pieces may not all come together to form an understandable flick, but this is a good slow-burner of a thriller in its own right, with an interesting set-up and a twist halfway in which will genuinely shock you. Good review Katy.

    • Happens a lot in these cat and mouse thrillers. I called it the “young adult literature” wrap-up — all the pieces coming together a little too smoothy, etc. But they definitely surprised the hell out of me with this one. Not sure why the ending bothered me so much, it might have been intentional, but I feel like that’s giving it too much credit.

  4. well, thanks for the heads up on the spoilers.

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