‘Side Effects’ addresses concerns in mental health industry

Steven Soderbergh’s final pre-retirement theatrical film Side Effects falls somewhere in between the category of his highly-acclaimed films (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven) and that of his less intriguing films, like Magic Mike. Soderbergh’s strong and mysterious thriller, explores troubling facts about the mental health care industry, almost demonizing the use of psychological pharmaceuticals.

One of the most important issues represented in this movie is the clash of interests between patient and psychiatrist.

The movie follows a vulnerable, doe-eyed young woman named Emily Taylor, played by Rooney Mara, who begins suffering from severe depression once her husband, played by Channing Tatum, is released from prison.

Following a suicide attempt very early in the film, Emily is assigned a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks, played by Jude Law, who allows her to leave the hospital on the condition that they meet regularly. He gives her multiple selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which prove unsuccessful.

Law assigns her a newer drug, the fictional Ablixa, whose exact mechanisms are never specified. The rest of the film chronicles the side effects of Emily’s new medication and how her troubling actions affect herself, her husband, and her doctors.

Soderbergh excels at manipulating light and camera angles to invoke certain emotions. Many scenes with Emily seem claustrophobic, cloudy and panicked, giving an insight to her condition and stirring up sympathy from the audience.

Despite her diagnosis of depression, however, Emily seems more prone to severe anxiety attacks, impulsivity and self-destructive decision making, as well as a moment or two of body dysmorphia.

A professional would have been more inclined to treat her for bipolar disorder or an anxiety disorder rather than depression, which would have changed her medication and potentially avoided all of the regrettable side effects.

There are other questionable points during Emily’s treatment, due mainly to the conflicting motivations of Dr. Banks and Emily. Who is truly responsible for Emily’s medicated actions – Emily or Banks, for prescribing the medication?

Emily’s previous therapist, Dr. Siebert, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, also seems to have misdiagnosed Emily, as Dr. Banks does. When Siebert and Emily saw each other regularly, Siebert constantly switched and re-adjusted Emily’s medications, regardless of Emily’s personal wishes.

This is an important theme in the film. In the mental health and pharmaceutical industry, the motivations of patients and doctors vary.

Psychiatrists are paid handsomely to subject their patients to one drug over another, particularly when drugs are undergoing their first human trials. Patients may or may not know what is in their best interest, and may be highly susceptible to outside influences from friends and family and their doctors. The film does a good job exploring these troubling facts about the mental health care industry.

While the plot seems to move quickly, parts of the film seem intentionally confusing, and some of the potential sub-plots are simply distracting. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character acts as a vehicle to disrupt the audience’s train of thought and complicate the plot at times. Despite a remarkably unique role, Catherine Zeta-Jones falls short; her demeanor may give away major plot twists to an astute viewer, and she is not very complex.

Mara gives a strong performance, playing up her wide-eyes and frail frame to portray helplessness. But it would be a generous description to say her chemistry with Tatum fizzles onscreen. Emily’s love for her husband is only clear when he is acting as protector.

The film’s true focus is on the much more dynamic client-therapist relationship between Emily and Dr. Banks.


Rooney Mara
Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor in Side Effects. Photo courtesy of salon.com