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Film Review: Side Effects

28 March 2013
Appeared in BioNews 699

Lives are torn apart by the misuse of prescription drugs in Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects, a twist-filled indictment of the pharmaceutical industry and the US healthcare system.

In parallel to one of his earlier pieces, Erin Brockovich, where people are unknowingly exposed to dangerous chemicals due to corporate greed, he raises important societal issues behind a heroic fight for justice.

In Side Effects, Soderbergh evokes a corrupt system where pharmaceutical companies are free to influence public perception of psychiatric disorders and reap the benefits.

The film opens with an apparently simple solution for Emily Hawkins' (Rooney Mara) depression. She is prescribed SSRI drugs, as they will 'stop the brain from telling you to feel sad'.

But the drugs don’t work and she is soon prescribed Ablixa by her psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) after a suggestion from Dr Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). From such banal beginnings her life and that of her husband (Channing Tatum) come to be torn apart.

The growling undercurrent of this movie is how drugs marketing in the US treats prescription medications like chocolate, over-simplifying their complex influence on behaviour.

The (fictional) drug that is the centrepoint of the movie, Ablixa, is unashamedly splashed across posters, pens, and other merchandise with the empowering catchphrase 'take back tomorrow'. At one point Dr Banks persuades his wife to take some anti-anxiety medications before an interview: 'Everyone takes them. It makes it easier to be who you are'.

Emily has friends advise her to take various anti-depressants: Celexa; Zoloft; Prozac; Effexor - all the big brands are referenced to at some point.

Of course, with the help of the Internet, casual discussion and self-prescription is also becoming an issue this side of the Atlantic. The boom in people taking non-prescribed 'smart drugs' led to a recent debate in University College London where it was revealed that even the professors are trying out prescription drugs to enhance their capabilities.

This is all despite the fact that most developed countries, excluding the US of course, have banned direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs.

As the title suggests, the effects of the drug in this movie have disastrous consequences. There are parallels with a recent Dutch court case where a man on trial for murder was described as a 'zombie' with experts saying that his use of the antidepressant Seroxat may have been a contributory factor.

Emily ends up on trial for murdering her husband while apparently sleepwalking and the question arises: is she a culpable individual or is the drug to blame? She describes herself 'a victim of circumstance and biology' during her trial, but aren't we all?

More generally, Side Effects explores the morally dubious side of the pharmaceutical industry and the treatment of the mentally ill in the US. I was particularly struck by how psychiatrists are forced to depend on their patients' words and actions when treating them. Psychiatric diagnoses cannot (yet?) be made based on concrete biological evidence. Soderbergh highlights the fragility of psychiatric diagnoses, and of our minds.

The film has a thrilling set-piece finale and ends with a bang, one which should ensure that should Soderbergh stop directing films, as he has recently threatened to do, he won't easily be forgotten.

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