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Hollywood movies about pharmaceutical companies often follow predictable plots. Typically, new drugs are emblematic of cutting-edge science, while drug companies represent symbols of power and greed. This duality leads to ethical conflicts for protagonists—usually mid-level operatives within the system who become ensnared in company-generated schemes. Something goes wrong. Tension ensues. The anti-heroes uncover ever-more-layers of avarice, which in turn beget new threats. Then dénouement: a rebellious last-stand, leading to resolution in the best cases and cataclysmic pharmageddon in the worst ones.
This narrative convention connects any number of woman/man-versus-Pharma company films. The Fugitive (1993) pits Dr Richard Kimble, wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife, against the murderous makers of Provasic. Spouse-killing drug makers are at it again in The Constant Gardener(2005), where Justin Quayle’s investigation of his wife’s death leads to the makers of Dypraxa. Pharmaceutical malfeasance also lies behind Aaron Cross’s revenge spree in The Bourne Legacy(2012) and even the emergence of militant apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). These and other movies fictionally play out real-world anxieties: we watch helplessly as the medications that sustain us also colonise our bodies, minds, and economies. But in the world of cinema, our anti-heroes fight back.
Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects would seem to be the latest instalment in this canon. Emily Taylor (the fantastic Rooney Mara) lives in a cloud of New York anomie. It rains a lot, her husband is a white-collar felon, and her job fails to inspire. One day she means to drive to work, but drives her car into a wall instead. Enter the well-intentioned psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Banks (convincingly played by Jude Law), who comes to the rescue with prescription pad in hand. Various antidepressants fail to lift Emily’s haze until she sees an ad for Ablixa, and asks her doctor if this new drug might be right for her. Ablixa, however, turns out to have an unfortunate side-effect profile: sleepwalking, combined with the propensity to murder one’s spouse. Banks suspects the new drug. But his attempts to uncover the truth about Ablixa lead to more violence, and Banks soon encounters the wrath of a system bent on sacrificing him in the name of the status quo.
Side Effects sets us up for yet another Pharma-done-it script. We watch Emily fall into the hypnotic grip of Ablixa. We see doctors seduced by Ablixa pens, fancy lunches, and beefy incentive cheques. And we gasp at the senseless violence caused by drug companies that put profits ahead of people. But then the film pulls a bait-and-switch. The doctor’s investigation leads, not to the corporation, but to the patient. Ablixa was a smokescreen—the violence was scripted out of human volition. The alleged pharmaceutical company malfeasance turns out to be a bad case of transference dentata instead. And ultimate responsibility for actions, intentions, and side-effects lies with patients, who perform acts of avarice—killing spouses, acting from greed—previously attributed to corporations.
As a psychiatrist, I can think of two ways to interpret such emplotment. Perhaps Side Effectsrepresents a reclamation of selfhood during an era when seemingly everyone takes some sort of prescription drug. Patients often advocate “finding a self beyond antidepressants”. The “self” beyond prescription medications is commonly assumed to seek happiness; but Side Effects suggests that the medicated-but-autonomous self can be sinful as well. The other possibility is even more terrifying: that the pharmacolisation of daily life is taken for granted. The rising influence of Pharma previously registered terror. But in Side Effects, Pharma’s ubiquity is wallpaper, white noise, a constant presence that surrounds us as we muddle through our lives, but that ultimately registers little more than exhaustion.
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