(Minor Spoilers) A second look at Side Effects (2013) Dir. Steven Soderbergh



“In the U.K. you’re given psychiatric medication because your sick.  Here in the U.S., the attitude is, ‘you’re getting better.” – Dr. Jonathan Banks (played by Jude Law)

I saw Side Effects a second time last night (You can check out my first Spoiler Review Here).  It’s a terrific movie, with some especially powerful commentary on psychiatric medication, the people who prescribe it, and the industry as a whole.  Dr. Banks (Jude Law) comments about the idea of psychiatric meds helping people “get better” is a theme at the center of the film.  On the one end, the idea of getting better reflects much of the propaganda surrounding the need to put more people on medication without actually addressing the deeper psychological problems of the individual receiving treatment.  The fascinating aspect of this film is how things change from the moment Dr. Banks believes he is using medication to treat Emily (Rooney Mara), to the end where the medication is used for the purpose of complete control over a sane person.  That’s not to say Emily didn’t get what was coming to her at the end of the film.  But the ending is telling, putting all characters involved into a very gray area.

There moments, such as in Dr. Banks court room testimony where he talks about medication used to suppress the conscious mind, like say, a person who is depressed, and the anti depressant that builds up serotonin levels in your mind to block the part of your brain telling you it’s depressed.  It’s not that the drug makes you a better person.  The drug instead is suppressing the problem, like for instance taking your problems and locking them away in a kind of pandora’s box. People are labeled and judged by doctors as depressed, schizophrenic, bipolar, schizo-affective, etc.  Those people being labeled are in fact more in tune with other, more powerful aspects parts of their psyche, but the rest of society judges them to keep them down and under control.  It’s easy to be trapped with that label your whole life when the real situation is the patient may simply be a person on a search to open up who they are.

The introduction scene to Dr. Banks reveals some awareness and understanding of this at first, but he labels it as the aspects of a different culture.  In his introductory scene, the police bring to him a manic Haitian man who rambles on about seeing ghosts.  Dr. Banks understands his language and translates for the officers that he’s stricken with grief and that for the Haitian man’s culture, to see visions of dead relatives after they’ve died it’s perfectly normal, where as our culture would see it as something unusual.  Of course, what’s unsaid is what if the man was a white American who went on about seeing ghosts.  He would be labeled as schizophrenic and put on meds.  But Dr. Banks talks about a difference in culture where the Haitian is “excused” and allowed to see these visions because he is considered in some way “different” than us because of his background.  But with American culture, those feelings and spiritual intuition are going to be blocked or suppressed because this country is more inclined to label and judge what we don’t understand.  Stick on a diagnosis, tell this person to take these pills every night, and you are reintegrated into the rest of society.

There was a story I remember that came from Joseph Campbell where he talked about the journey of a schizophrenic, and in certain cultures, the man or woman who would be considered schizophrenic is someone who has fallen off the edge, and the question is “can he/she be pulled back”?  That person has drowned in their own subconscious.  There are sacred rituals the person is put through.  There were some cultures where they would literally drill a hole in the patients skull as a way to release dark spirits (Trust me, they didn’t have an anesthetic for that).  But the thing about being mentally ill is that it’s not just a physical illness, but that person is drowning in their own pain in need of a life preserver.  Medication can be that life preserver, but the truth is your still going to be stuck in the water until you see a ship come by.  But that ship may be a religion, or a kind of belief system, and depending whether your headed for any sort of land, the problems remain and you could be trapped over that water for a very long time.

In Side Effects, Emily winds up becoming a prisoner of her own pain.  Her pain is transferred through others by her manipulation.  By the end of the film she is described as somebody who would be technically “sane”.  But her manipulating is forced back on her 10 fold, and she is absorbed by the psychiatric system (trapped in a mental institution).  Medication can block your signals and your own intuition, where you can never tell just when or what you’re supposed to be feeling, except that you’re just there.  Emily’s final words to the doctor at the end sum it up, as the doctor asks, “How are you doing today, Emily?”, and she says, under several tranquilizers and anti psychotics, “Better.  Much Better.”    Dr. Banks may be seen as a hero by the end of the film in giving Emily what she deserves.  But the doctor goes to a dark place by the end, starting as somebody helping people, to someone getting revenge, and using the psychiatric system to be just as controlling and manipulative to put Emily in her place and give her what he thinks she deserves.

If you have not seen Side Effects yet, I really highly recommend you check it out.  It’s really one of the most thought provoking films on psychiatric medicine, talking about not only the drug industry, but the relationships between doctors and patients, the use of drugs for control and manipulation, and so much more.  In my first review, I even saw the film as a kind of satire, where most people get angry when a person is labeled as mentally ill when they commit a murder.  People like to hold onto the belief that the person was totally sane the whole time as if it was part of their master plan to get away with it.  So in this film Soderbergh gives the audience exactly what they want to see!  And the funny thing was, at both screenings I saw, there was no laughing.  There was no reaction when Dr. Banks had Emily incarcerated in a mental institution.  All the while the film plays like a fun Hitchcock thriller.  Again, I highly recommend to all that you check out this terrific film.  It’s the first great film of 2013.

9 thoughts on “(Minor Spoilers) A second look at Side Effects (2013) Dir. Steven Soderbergh”

  1. Technically speaking, just how long can Emily be kept institutionalized? I understand, via research , that the burden of proof is on the psychiatrist to prove that their patient is insane and in need of medication. Same goes for medication: you have the constitutional right to refuse to take it (unless the staff believes you are an immediate danger to yourself and/or others), and if your doctor disagrees, he/she has to prove it legally. So, unless she attempts suicide or hurting someone else, how feasible is it for him to keep her in the ward beyond a few months?

    This is of course ignoring the fact that at Siebert’s trial, the conspiracy will be exposed, and Emily will be exposed as sane, leaving Banks no grounds upon which to continue her institutionalization. Further, Banks will himself be charged with patient abuse (Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy), and could end up going to jail.

    Call me a bleeding heart, and maybe I am, but keeping a sane person (no matter what they’ve done) indefinitely committed and drugged is disgusting; our “protagonist” is therefore not only exposed as greedy (he basically allowed a pharma company to use his patient, whom he had good reason to believe was suicidally depressed, as a lab rat for money), but is also sociopathically sadistic.

    1. I know exactly what you’re saying, and it’s exactly why I find this movie to be so fascinating. That’s just it. Dr. Banks is not a good guy. He knows just as much if not moreso how to work the system. There are things such as patients rights as hospitals, but I will tell you I have been to psychiatric hospitals as a patient, and they will force you with any and all means to get you to take your medication. On the wall they have a list that says you have the right to refuse medication as a patient. But when I was there, when I saw patients who didn’t want to take their meds, the hospital nurses would bully them into it. “Why not?! Why don’t you want to take your meds?? Don’t you want to get better?!” If the patient appears to be insubordinate, they threaten to give you the Thorozine shot. That happened to me once on my first hospital visit when I didn’t want to take medication, they threatened to give me the shot. I’ve been hospitalized at three different hospitals and I’ve seen this kind of bullying at every one of them. It’s fascinating. There is a real dark side to how mental patients are treated in hospitals. No one nessicerily intends malice or thinks they’re being corrupt, but its that sense of instilling control over the patients. The thing is, if you really are sane in a mental hospital, how can you really prove it? You can’t. Because the thing is EVERY patient, no matter how crazy wants to prove that they’re sane. That’s how the game works. Once you submit to control and start taking your meds, then they let you out. But even if the person is sane, because they have so much put on them about their diagnosis and their medication, the patient is going to start wondering if they really are sane or not, even if the absolute truth is they were sane the whole time. The ending to Side Effects is very dark, but I love it. And even though Emily did a lot of terrible things in the film, I do feel sorry for her because she was trying to escape to a better life when she was unhappy and she got herself trapped. And yes, I also think Dr. Banks is the real villain of the film. It’s ironic what he does, and funny in a dark humor sort of way all the methods he comes up with to torture Emily (like the electroshock therapy scene, which I thought was funny and brilliant.) It is scary to think that doctors could come up with anything to make you believe you’re losing your mind. When Emily’s trial comes up, I personally don’t think she will have much of a chance. Because based on her behavior, the doctors, including Banks could pull anything out of the air to convince the jury she’s not ready. Even a doctor who doesn’t know what’s really going on is going to side with Banks, because if Emily tells another doctor what Banks is doing to her….well, who is really going to believe her? 🙂

      1. I hear you. It’s really embarassing to admit, but after seeing the ending I have been unable to get it out of my head for damn near a month, it horrified me to the core so much. In a way, I can actually project myself onto Emily’s character: I’m in my twenties, and about to graduate from university, and have no idea whether or not the life I end up getting is what I hoped for. And if I somehow lose everything and have to claw and scrape for a living, who knows what kind of depraved or desperate thing I might end up doing out of bitterness or depression. Would that necessarily make me greedy, or evil or a psychopath?

        So, do you really think she’ll end up spending her entire life in the ward? I’ve read that the state only lets psychiatrists extend their patient’s institutionalization up to a certain extent, before they just decide they’re a drain on the public (if my sources are correct, $3,000 per day) and have them released (sane or not). Like you said, as long as she takes her meds and doesn’t attempt to harm herself or others, just how long can the doctors keep her?

  2. Well, I can tell you from my own experience that the way to bliss is allowing yourself to expect the unexpected out of life. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to get the life you want. What it means is that you’ll get the life you want, but it’s going to come to you in the way you least suspect. What you have to do is start listening to your own intuition. It’s that voice inside you, guiding you and telling you when you really need to do something. What that voice may tell you, for example, is to accept a job at a coffee shop for awhile, even if that’s not really the job you desire. But your intuition to say “yes” to the job may be telling you “this is what you need to do to get what you really want in your life”. If you can hear that voice in your head when you’re not sure if you should take a course of action, even if it doesn’t appear on the surface it’s going to get you where you want to go…if the voice says “yes, go for it”, then that’s probably what you need to do. It’s okay to feel a little afraid, but after awhile you start to realize that there’s no need to be afraid, when in fact the universe is laying out the path for you to get what you want. Believe me, I can tell you I needed to go to the psychiatric hospital before I realized, when a great opportunity came to me, that I needed to have that experience because it’s playing a part now in the life I currently live. Remember that movie that came out a few years ago “Yes Man”? It’s kind of like that. When you start saying “yes” to opportunities in your life, what the universe is giving you is life experience. That life experience is going to shape you into the person you really want to be. The universe is saying, “you need to have this experience, so that when you do get the thing you want most out of life, you will have learned through your experience how you will go about doing it”. If you start approaching your life in that way, you’ll discover there’s no reason to be afraid, because the universe is there helping you the whole time to get what you want.

    So to answer your question, will Emily get out of the hospital and free herself? That depends. She was able to commit herself to playing the part of the mental patient. She has no choice but to continue playing that role. But this time she won’t be doing it out of selfish desire because she has nowhere else to go. She can start approaching her life as a mental patient by showing acts of compassion towards other people, including Dr. Banks who put her in there. She’s still alive, which means she’s still in the game. She’s having this experience of being trapped at the hospital for a reason. It’s not out of punishment. The universe wants to show her something, and if she’s willing to listen, she’ll see new opportunities. She’ll not only get out and free herself from Dr. Banks. She’ll start living a new life…the one that was waiting for her all along, and she had to go through what she did in this movie to find herself. She may get out and suddenly realize she wants a career in mental health. She has a completely unique understanding because of what she did, playing the part of a mental health patient and learning about how the mental health patient system really works. She has that experience now. She’ll start looking at mentally ill people in a whole new way, with understanding and compassion, and once she finally gets out, that will give her the direction of her true career in life, which is what she was searching for from the very beginning. She murdered her husband, yes, and because there’s karma she has to pay the price by staying in a mental institution for awhile. But we also know why she murdered her husband…because she wanted something better and she was unhappy with her life with him. What she did was wrong, but we can sympathize with her just the same. At the same time, the insanity charge she has on her is also what’s keeping her out of a federal prison, and that will come back the day she’s ready for a new hearing and trial that will allow her to go back to society. But she would have to learn how to change herself and let her experience being in the hospital change her in order for her to be free.

  3. That’s pretty deep; sorry if that’s a cliche reply 😛 But no, I totally get you. This past year has left me feeling pretty anxious and nervous for what is to come for me, especially in this economy. I guess I’m sort of off to a good start, though: got a job interview offer for after I graduate. It’s short term, only an internship, and in a field of journalism (my major) I’m not all that familiar in, but I’ll take it nonetheless, because experience is experience and any door opened is good in my book 🙂

    Your description of a possible redemption for Emily is pretty well thought-out too, though I do wonder about her capability of having a “learning experience” while on medication that messes with her cognitive abilities. What you’ve described would actually make a terrific movie, one that would succeed where the original failed: to inject a key character with a sympathetic and intelligent ethos. I think one of the chief flaws of Side Effects was that the writers obviously intended for us to view Banks as the “protagonist,” and purposely left Emily as such a blank slate so that we wouldn’t sympathize with her. I’m something of an amateur creative writer, so I just might try my hand at writing a “sequel” of sorts, if only for fun.

    1. Actually, this is just my opinion, but as a piece of art the movie is perfect as it is. It’s perfect to me because it gets people to think, and there are a lot of people who are going to walk away from this movie thinking Dr. Banks is the hero and Emily is the villain. As they should. Because that’s what the movie wants to point out to people, and for some hopefully get them to think further about the underlying context.

      As for Emily being doomed to a life of medication, there’s something I should point out that the movie does tell us about Emily…medication doesn’t work on her. 😉

      1. Sorry, really hate to keep harping on this, but didn’t you say in your review that: “she says, under several tranquilizers and anti psychotics, “Better. Much Better.” ” Implying that the meds actually were making her catatonic?

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