When Martin (Channing Tatum), the husband of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), is released from prison after serving five years for insider trading, her troubles should all be over. Her handsome husband has come home, ready to start rebuilding his life with her. Instead, they are just beginning. She just can't seem to shake the depression and sadness. First she drives herself head-on into a brick wall. Then she nearly steps off a platform into the path of a subway train. She feels inexplicably sad and cries all the time. Her psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) prescribes traditional antidepressants, but they don't seem to help. Then he prescribes a newly developed antidepressant that picks her right up. She laughs again. Her libido returns. But there are side effects. She sleepwalks. And she kills her husband.
True depression — not an occasional bout of the blues — is a serious problem. It has been described clinically as "the inability to imagine a future," and poetically as "a poisonous fog bank rolling in at 3 pm." Clinical depression is often caused by the brain's inability to release or absorb essential hormones or communicate effectively with itself. In these cases, psychotropic drugs can offer relief. As Dr. Banks tells Emily, "It doesn't make you someone you aren't; it just makes it easier for you to be who you are." As the parent of an epileptic daughter whose grand mal seizures are completely controlled by medication, I am grateful for pharmaceutical companies that have worked diligently to develop better and more effective drugs.
But psychotropic drugs can also have severe side effects, including erratic and even violent behavior. Public massacres in recent months have brought the discussion of these drugs to the forefront, but it is difficult to know whether the drugs themselves cause the violent urges, or whether the violent urges already existed within the troubled mind of these young men who planned the massacres. Michael Jackson's doctor was convicted of administering drugs that his client requested — demanded! — but those drugs ended up killing him. Who is culpable in these cases?
Director Steven Soderbergh examines these issues in his fine film Side Effects, which opened this week. We watch Emily as she struggles with sadness and suicidal desires. Her psychiatrists Dr. Banks and Dr. Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) attend conferences where new drugs are introduced and promoted. Banks attends a lunch meeting where he is offered a lucrative deal for recruiting his patients to participate in experimental trials of a new drug.
The first half of the film seems almost like an anti-pharmaceutical Public Service Announcement sponsored by Scientology. In one scene, several doctors are interviewed on "Good Morning America," allowing the screenwriters to ask — and answer — several probing questions. One of the cops investigating Martin's death threatens Dr. Banks to make him comply with the prosecutor's office, saying, "Either she's a murderer, or she's a victim of her medical treatment. Which do you want it to be?" After all, Dr. Banks had already been told about Emily's sleepwalking. Shouldn't he have taken her off the drug?
Under these circumstances, "Did she do it?" and "Is she guilty?" become two very different questions. Can she be guilty if she was completely unconscious of the act? But a man is dead. If she isn't guilty, who is? Since most people are able to use these drugs without adverse effects, should the doctor be held accountable when a patient does have a bad reaction? Is she not guilty by reason of insanity, or a victim of circumstance and her own biology?
The first half of the film presents the audience with these philosophical questions. But don't be put off by the PSA sensibility. The second half of the film turns into a taut and engaging murder thriller as Dr. Banks tries to salvage his career by answering these questions. In the end, the film is as tense and exciting as it is philosophically engaging. Great performances and a fascinating denouement make this a film well worth seeing.