Thrills, pills and paranoia... Pf looks behind the blood-streaked face of this year’s ‘must see’ pharma thriller and finds a ‘me-too’ product that hits easy targets while choking on its own off-patent formula.
Side Effects (2013)
You have to see this film. Not because it’s much good, but because it poses as a smart critique of the pharma industry and its place in modern culture. It’s saturated with references to prescribed drugs and the ways they are promoted. But in the end, it’s not about pharma. That’s just a MacGuffin: a plot device designed to distract the audience from what’s really going on. And what’s really going on in this self-important film is pure, FDA-approved bullshit.
Warning: this review will reveal what happens. If you want to be ‘surprised’ by the ending, don’t read any further. But if you want to know why this film merely pretends to be about pharma – why, in fact, it’s Frank Miller wearing a Ben Goldacre mask – and why its real message is misogynistic nonsense, then read on.
The film starts with bloodstains on an apartment door, then jumps back three months to the release from prison of a businessman, Martin, convicted of insider trading. His wife Emily (the enigmatic Rooney Mara) is suffering from periodic bouts of depression, one of which leads her to drive her car into a wall. While in hospital, she becomes a patient of psychiatrist Dr Banks (the not so enigmatic Jude Law).
Despite being prescribed SSRIs, Emily continues to suffer severe depressive spells. Unsure what else to prescribe, Dr Banks consults with Dr Siebert (Catherine Zeta- Jones, wearing an ‘I’ve got a dark secret’ T-shirt), who recommends a new drug called Ablixa. Emily thrives on Ablixa – but starts sleepwalking, which Dr Siebert says is a side effect. And then, one night, Emily picks up a knife in her sleep and stabs Martin to death.
Dr Banks convinces the court that Emily is innocent and the drug was to blame, but in the process his own career falls apart. Then he begins to suspect that Emily has been lying – and that she is in league with Dr Siebert. He persuades Emily to answer questions after taking the ‘truth drug’ sodium amytal. She says nothing new, but becomes woozy and passes out. This makes Dr Banks suspicious, because he had given her a placebo.
The plot thickens like cement. Dr Siebert sends fake photos to Dr Banks’ wife to make her think he has slept with Emily. She also tries to force Emily to undergo ECT, which gets Emily so scared she tells Dr Banks the truth: that she and Dr Siebert were lovers who gambled money on her husband’s death causing his company’s shares to lose value. She had been depressed after her husband was jailed, but everything later – including the sleepwalking – was faked.
Dr Banks gets Emily freed so she can set up Dr Siebert for arrest. Then he turns the tables on Emily, declaring her too dangerous to be free and condemning her to spend the rest of her life in a secure mental hospital, numbed by thorazine, while he returns to his family.
There’s an awful lot here about pharma marketing. After Martin’s death, his mother says: “I don’t understand. You see the ads on TV, people are getting better.” Dr Banks himself (and isn’t the name a giveaway?) is a store of pharma clichés: SSRIs “stop your brain telling you you’re sad”, Ablixa “helps you to be yourself”, sodium amytal “is a window into the psyche”. Ablixa carries the slogan “Take back tomorrow” – though Emily hilariously admits, “It didn’t do much for me.” Dr Banks is also being paid $50,000 to participate in a clinical trial of the drug.
However, it’s thorazine that gives the film its final and strongest moment: Emily in the mental institution, a shuffling zombie, with the camera panning back to show us the vast prison-like building. It’s a steal from Requiem for a Dream – and the ‘social relevance’ of Side Effects is borrowed from other films, while its only inherent message appears to be that lesbians are scheming psychos. For a film that’s supposed to be cutting-edge, that’s a dismayingly tawdry theme.