Category Archives: Spirituality in Film

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(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.