Side Effects (2013)

Rated R. Our ratings: V -1-; L -3; S/N -5. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
from the scheming of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless;
they shoot suddenly and without fear.
They hold fast to their evil purpose;
they talk of laying snares secretly,
thinking, ‘Who can see us?*
Who can search out our crimes?*
We have thought out a cunningly conceived plot.’
For the human heart and mind are deep.
Psalm 64:2-6

The disturbed Emily and husband Martin at Dr. Bank s office.

2013 Open Road Films

We’ve all heard those pharmaceutical commercials in which the warning about the medication’s side effects takes up more time than the rosy claim that this pill is the salvation from the ailment making your life miser able. In what director Steven Soderbergh claims will be his “last film” Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a wife in her mid-twenties is having a hard time coping with the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after serving a term for insider trading. Depressed and attempting suicide by driving her car into a wall, she is taken to a hospital, where she submits to the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).

He tries various medicines—Effexor, Wellbutrin, Xanax and ZoloftEffexor, Wellbutrin, Xanax and Zoloft— to help her cope with her depression, but none seem to help. He puts her on a new pill called Ablixa (fictional), and she perks up, mounting her husband in bed for some hot sex, in sharp contrast to their previous lovemaking when she lay as still as a statue. Martin’s comment, “Whoever makes this drug is going to be very rich,” But there are other side effects not so pleasant, such as her sleep walking at night, even cooking breakfast one time. She is awakened with no memory of what she had done. A dinner outing with some business people ends badly when she becomes anxious and feels she must leave.

Dr. Banks consults with a psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who had previously treated Emily. They do not hit it off well. And then Emily does something so shocking while sleep walking that her life, and that of Dr. Banks, is upended, she being sent to a mental hospital and he possibly losing his career and his marriage because someone has to be blamed for his patient’s crime. He sets out to try to unravel the skein of circumstances and motives. Was it the medicine and his poor supervision that created the tragic situation, or was it something else?

Aided by a fine musical score that suggests that more is happening than meets the eye, this turns out to be not a film attacking the pharmaceutical industry (though it does hold up a mirror to reveal an unflattering image of Big Pharma and our too easy acceptance of drugging ourselves for a cure all), but an intriguing mystery. The ending might be a bit too tidy, but it is a satisfying one, illustrating the psalmist’s words, “For the human heart and mind are deep.” They are indeed!

For Reflection/Discussion

Might be a spoiler in the last two questions.

1. How does Emily seem when she greets her husband at the prison gate? Did you relate her depression to the couple’s loss of their former home and reduced circumstances living in a small Manhattan apartment?

2. Knowing what you do now, what do you make of her dropping and spilling her purse in front of the maintenance man in the parking garage? And then her driving her car into the wall?

3. What do you think of the two psychiatrists? Do you think that therapists such as Dr. Banks have been relying too much on drugs for treating their patients? How might this be indicative of our society’s desire to find shortcuts or easy solutions to complex problems? Have you, or someone you know, suffered unwelcome side effects from a prescription drug, and if so, what happened?

4. At what points did the film surprise you? How was the music used to signal you that something was not as it seemed?

5. What do you think of the way in which Dr. Banks gets around the Constitutional stipulation about “double jeopardy” to bring about a measure of justice? How is this a mixed bag from an ethical standpoint?