I need to let you know up front that this is a MAJOR SPOILER REVIEW, because it really is impossible to talk about this film without divulging in this films many surprises. Especially the ending, which I found incredibly telling. So if you haven’t seen Side Effects yet, go see it. If you need a reason to check it out, my nutshell analysis is: It’s terrific. YES GO SEE IT. It’s awesome.
So after you’ve seen it, come back here and we can talk about it!
Okay…so you’ve seen the film? Good. Here’s the interesting thing about this movie. Most people have labled this movie as a drama, crime thriller, suspense movie, etc. But if there were really one genre I think would be most appropriate for this film, it’s Satire. By satire, I don’t mean the film is a comedy, but it’s the irony of everything the film builds up to and where it inevitably ends up, and finally the deeper more telling message underneath it all that strikes at the truth. When you watch the film, the plot gets more and more silly and ludicrous as the film goes on, and yet it’s taken completely seriously. The psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) starts going manic crazy when he has reason to believe his patient Emily (Rooney Mara) has been faking depression as a cover for murdering her husband, disguising it as a sleepwalking side effect of a “brand new anti-depressant medication. The big revelation we find out in the film is that Emily and her husband we’re once wealthy but when he is arrested (I forget what for, I think it was fraud), she goes to see psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones). Doctor and psychiatrist fall in love, and the two of them plot a scam to make millions in scamming the psychiatric drug company, as well as using Emily’s “depression/mental illness” as a cover for murdering her husband. Siebert becomes Emily’s mentor, training her how to act the part of a depressed patient, telling her exactly what she needs to do to pull of a performance in the eyes of Dr. Banks, the District Attorney’s, and everyone else. When Dr. Banks‘ career starts going down the toilet after the media finds out he prescribed her a drug that led Emily to kill her husband, he starts picking up clues that Emily may have been faking the whole time. And he’s driven to save his reputation and put his life back together again. When Dr. Banks brings his theories to his wife and the District Attorney, they all think he’s going crazy. It’s more like mania, but his suspicions eventually lead him to the truth.
The film itself starts out with a heavy serious film, leading us to believe its about a girl struggling with depression. But the more the film started to unravel, after awhile I was laughing several times at the sheer silliness of it all. The movie does a great job keeping you on the edge and getting you to take the story seriously. And it does play itself as a great mystery thriller. But there is an additional layer of subtext I saw with this film regarding mental patients that I’m not sure anyone has really caught on to, or if they are seeing the same thing I did with this film.
In America, there is an almost innate denial of the problems of mental illness in the country. If you look at the mass shooting at the Batman screening back in July 2012, almost everyone wanted to believe that the man who committed the murder was completely sane at the time. The idea being he was just putting on an act of mental illness to break the system and get away with it. The clues of course being that he was incredibly smart, studying as a physics major, and it’s as if killing all those people was part of some bigger plot. Which, if you think about it, sounds just like the plot for a Hollywood movie. It’s funny because anytime a horrific murder happens, if the gunman is a murder/suicide, everyone wants to blame everything else, whether its violent movies, violent video games, etc. No one wants to stop and look at the actual person who committed the crime, where they came from, and what might have happened that lead them to commit murder. But the answer for many is to label the victim as evil, have him put on death row, and just be rid of the problem as if it will make all the problems go away. For many Mental illness is thought of as a scapegoat for people’s behavior, even for something as extreme as getting away with murder.
So what Soderbergh has done with Side Effects has given the audience exactly what they want to see: A mentally ill patient who is actually faking it. Emily was secretly doing it to scam the pharmaceutical companies and come away rich again with her secret lesbian lover psychiatrist. And then showing Jude Law’s as the manic psychiatrist going bat-shit crazy trying to convince everyone she’s faking it. The whole thing comes down to a fictionalized, what-if scenario, while at the same time poking a subtle satirical jab at the audience at just how silly and ridiculous the whole thing is. There are several moments of imagery that are telling, like the cliche psychiatristfalling in love with their patient scenario. The cliche‘s are deliberate and intentional, in fabricating a really silly story that manages to get the audience to take it seriously. But what I also thought was terrific was the ending, where Dr. Banks winds up using his power of law as a psychiatrist to get back at her, making her go on traquelizers, and when she refuses and tries to run off, she’s institutionalized. One of my favorite, hilariously awesome scenes in the film is where Dr. Banks is on to her and recommends putting her through electro-shock therapy for her depression, and the kind of stunned look in Emily’s eyes as to what she’s just gotten herself into.
It’s not that Emily didn’t get what was coming to her at the end of the film, because she did. But in stepping back and looking at the big picture, it’s the image of a psychiatrist having institutionalized a sane person. If you want to call a person who plots to murder her husband sane. We get that last great shot of Emily trapped in a psychiatric institute looking out the window, as we pan over the city watching congested traffic on the highway. It’s just so brilliant and horribly ironic.
There is also something to be said about the fact that Dr. Banks is a foreigner from the UK. It was a wise choice to make his character this way, because I think if Dr. Banks had been American, the satire would have been a little more obvious. But having him be a foreigner is like getting an outside perspective on the state of mental illness in America. I was with my dad, and we laughed quite a few times at some of the ironies of the film, but what was surprising was that there was no laughing or smiling from anyone in our audience. Which in itself was fun considering they were actually taking the story seriously! I was hoping after awhile that somebody would get the joke. I am wondering if there really were others out there who saw the same satirical edge I saw with this film. But to me its what makes the film so brilliant.
When I say the film is silly and satirical however, I mean its a good kind of silly. This is a film that has arrived exactly at the right moment during our current time. It’s not only the kind of film about mental illness that people can have fun with, by giving the audience exactly what they want to see, but I also think it lets everyone vent their frustrations a little bit. It does exactly what a great satire does, which is never pandering to a certain group, but tries to speak to everyone on the same level. There are several layers to digest with this story, about psychiatrists, patients, pharmaceutical companies, and just in general the messy state of laws and protocol regarding mentally ill patients. This is a really great terrific film, and in my opinion, the best film of 2013 so far.