"Who can see the lies?": 7 notes on Side Effects

1) As has often proven true with Steven Soderbergh's recent films (especially Contagion), Side Effects invigorated me with its subtly vicious tone, its willingness to diagnose a problem without offering a solution, and the questions that it raises about the way people control and entrap each other.

2) Soderbergh's films frequently carry underlying themes that add layers of complexity to otherwise straightforward genres. In part a Robert Altman-esque depiction of the bizarro world of male strippers, Magic Mike like The Girlfriend Experience (2009) also meditates on the exploitative effects of the post-2008 recession that can easily lead to prostitution. Much like Soderbergh's Bubble (2005), Side Effects depicts a damaged central character, Emily Taylor (Mara) who inadvertently murders someone, but it also shares with films like Body Heat (1981) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) a plot line that gradually becomes unmoored from its premises, leading the viewer to question all of the information s/he has gathered midway into the movie (which makes it difficult to write about without providing spoilers).

3) Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has already shown how quickly Rooney Mara's beauty can become unpredictable, detached, and alien. Soderbergh's nonjudgmental filmmaking style perfectly suits her because they both share a blank affect that can mask all kinds of monstrous subterfuges and underlying agendas. The pharmaceutical industry has a not so subtle agenda: profit. Psychiatrists (such as Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law)) cannot help being torn between curing patients and assisting big pharma for money. The occasional patient may be sacrificed in the process, but also Side Effects depicts how a doctor might be subject to a media campaign that shatters his practice: either through advertisements or through talk shows, news shows, etc., the media distorts and sensationalizes antidepressants.

4) While I enjoyed Mara's mutant charm, Jude Law--in one of his best roles since playing Dickie in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)--surprised me the most with his intelligent take on Dr. Banks. In an early scene, Banks saves a weeping Haitian from police brutality when he determines, in French, that the man had seen his deceased father go by in a taxi.  When the cop asks him how that can be, Banks replies that given Haitian cultural mores, such a vision is not uncommon. In other words, Banks sees through the situation in a way that the policeman couldn't. His role in the movie's many deceptions requires him to spot nuances in people's behavior in order to out-strategize others to try to survive.  

5) Side Effects also considers the various ways in which doctors can constrain their patients and abuse their power, i.e. by committing them to wards, restricting their access to telephones (as in Notorious (1946)), injecting them with tranquilizers when they become agitated, and by siccing the police on them when they try to escape.

6) As Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) says at one point, "A number of years ago I had a patient who was having an affair, came in here every week like he was going to confession, cried, repented, didn't stop. Then one day he comes in and says it's over, finally got a handle on his issues like some great epiphany. It was about six or seven years later his wife turns up and says he has a whole other family in another state. He'd been lying to her and he was lying to me. The kids blamed me. The wife blamed me. Even the patient blamed me. There were times I blamed me. The point is, the cardiologist could see it coming from the tests. It's in the blood. But who can see the lies?"

7) What are the side effects?  Dry mouth, nausea, dizziness, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, weight gain, diminished sex drive, sleepwalking. What kind of Faustian deal do the sad make every day as they take their antidepressants?  As Paul Biegler points out, "Patients are squeezed in a pharma sandwich, pressured on one side by physicians with big money riding on drug companies, and subtly cajoled on the other by direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs (DTCA)." What does it mean to have one's mood so crudely fixed, with such mechanistic tradeoffs? Are people healed or do they become automatons? Couldn't one say that, for some, depression is a natural response to deranged circumstances?


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