We hear it said over and over. But there's nothing miraculous about a drug, really. Medications inhabit the realm of scientific pragmatism—chemical stews that adjust body functions by either augmenting organic processes or repressing them. In that, they can be fickle, unpredictable. They can cure a headache or cause a rash. They can trigger weight gain or stimulate hair growth. Powerful drugs sometimes need help from other drugs to deal with their side effects, in fact. But, still, for those whom the drugs help, they can indeed feel miraculous.
Emily Taylor needs that kind of miracle. She cries often. She flees from parties. One day she got behind the wheel of her car and drove it straight into a brick wall. Her psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Banks, can see she's deeply, dangerously depressed and prescribes a battery of drugs to help her. But she can't keep any of them down.
Then, after consulting Emily's previous physician (Dr. Erica Siebert), Jonathan gives Emily something new: Ablixa. Perhaps this drug will help where none of the rest could.
And fortunately—miraculously—it does. Emily is smiling again. Laughing. Enjoying sex with her husband. It's wonderful, she says, to finally be the wife that Martin (who has recently been released from prison after getting busted for insider trading) wants, needs and deserves. "It's like we're actually together," she says.
Sure, maybe Emily's sleepwalking a bit. Sure, she's making meals in her sleep for three—place settings for her, for her husband and perhaps for Madeline, the little girl she lost through miscarriage. Sleepwalking is a small price to pay, Emily says, for feeling alive when she's awake.
Then one day the police find Martin dead on the floor, a knife stuck in his back. Emily is sobbing uncontrollably. Her fingerprints are on the knife. Her feet are stained with her husband's blood.
The table is set for three.
It's obvious Emily killed her husband. But who, exactly, bears the guilt? Is it her own to carry? Or should it fall on Ablixa? On her doctor, Jonathan? Or is there something even more sinister at play here?
You gotta feel bad for Jonathan. During the first few months he knows Emily, it's pretty obvious he's trying to do the very best he can for her. He makes her acquaintance after she crashes her car into the wall, and he suggests she be admitted to a hospital for evaluation. Emily flatly refuses, but offers to meet with him—several times a week, if necessary. They do, Jonathan making every effort to help. When he learns that Emily's sleepwalking—something that worries Martin mightily—Jonathan suggests that there might be other drugs to try. But Emily says she doesn't want to switch, and Jonathan acquiesces.
Some of his decisions—made with the best intentions—were the wrong ones in many people's eyes. The fact that he prescribed the medicine and then didn't remove her from it once he learned of the sleepwalking suggests negligence. A well-intentioned extra meeting with her backfires. But dealing with sicknesses of the mind can be tricky, and moviegoers understand that the doctor (while perhaps too trusting of drugs) means well.
Later, beginning to suspect there's something more mysterious than a drug interaction going on, Jonathan pursues the truth with an almost unhinged passion. We can't laud some of the methods he uses to get to the bottom of things, and how he uses the information he unearths is a bit squishy too. [Spoiler Warning] But he does show himself to be a merciful doctor and a relentless detective, ultimately forcing the true villains to pay for their crimes.
A man claims he saw his dead father driving a taxi—a symptom, Jonathan says, of grief.
Emily and Martin have sex twice. The first time, we see Martin moving and moaning on top of an obviously unmotivated Emily. (We see them from the shoulders up.) The second time, a naked, enthusiastic Emily moves on top of Martin. Her breasts are fully exposed and her crotch comes briefly into the camera's view.
Emily works in the kitchen, topless and possibly fully nude. (We see her bare back.) She also makes an appearance in just bra and panties.
Jonathan rips open his wife's shirt, popping buttons off one by one before their son comes into the room. We hear that one of Jonathan's previous patients alleged an affair between them, with some of the details discussed in embarrassing detail. (Jonathan says it was all a fantasy she made up.) Other people also discuss sex.
Emily has a lesbian tryst. We see the two women kiss as they begin to take off each other's clothes. Hands hike up skirts and suggestively touch thighs.
Emily stabs Martin three times—twice in the gut and once in the back. He begs for her to call someone as he lies on the floor, bleeding out. We see pools of blood and bloody footprints being tracked around the apartment.
As mentioned, Emily purposely crashes her car. Its safety equipment saves her life, but her face still bears evidence of the impact, looking red and raw. She talks about wishing she was dead. While staying in a mental ward for observation, she becomes physically agitated until she's forcibly injected with a tranquilizer. She (and we) watches someone receive electroshock therapy. Someone gets slapped.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to 20 f-words and a half-dozen s-words. Characters misuse God's name, once or twice combining it with "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
As one might gather from the film's name, drugs are a big player in this medical murder mystery. We hear loads of references to antidepressants, and the film seems to prod viewers to ask whether these chemical enhancements are a little too prevalent these days.
Jonathan, though, loves his drugs. He gives his wife a beta blocker before she has an important interview, telling her that "it makes it easier for you to be who you are." He grabs a Red Bull when confronted with a daunting workload, declaring that it's "better living through chemistry." And when he's down on his luck, he asks a fellow doctor to prescribe some Adderall for him to help improve his focus. He apparently injects someone with Sodium Pentothal—sometimes colloquially called truth serum. And he, of course, prescribes a variety of drugs for Emily. We see some of their effects.
We also see folks drink wine, champagne and beer. Jonathan, during a rough patch, drinks more and acts erratically—but whether that's the influence of the booze or his own troubled mind, we're never told.
Other Negative Elements
People lie and cheat and embezzle money. Martin, imprisoned for four years for insider trading, immediately upon release begins thinking about going into business with someone he met in jail—perhaps not the best indication that the guy wants to live clean. Emily says her unborn child Madeline left her body because she didn't want to be inside a sad person anymore.
She retches in a closed toilet stall.
I'm a sucker for a movie with a twist, and Side Effects twists like a tilt-a-whirl. A third of the way through the movie, I thought this might be a heavy-handed story illustrating the perils of drugs and the evils of pharmaceutical companies—a narrative that is growing in popularity (see Love & Other Drugs.) But then it turned into something else entirely—an often clever murder mystery that brushes ever so lightly against the likes of psychiatric ethics, media-generated maelstroms and the capacity for human duplicity.
Too bad all that twisting takes place in such twisted territory. Nudity. Gratuitous sex scenes. Obscene language. A bloodily depicted murder.
The film's called Side Effects, and perhaps that's an all-too-appropriate title. Just as beneficial drugs come with some unwanted consequences, so does this sometimes thoughtful film suffer from unneeded content.