Side Effects; A Missed Opportunity

Horror and action are genres that both frequently deal with dangerous situations, and yet it’s fairly rare that they get mixed up. Action is about the point where danger is active, and can be battled out in the open. There are clear boundaries between danger and safety, good and evil. It typically stars someone highly capable of handling the threat. Indiana Jones, Batman and Imperator Furiosa may have the odds stacked against them, but they are still trained and resourceful in exactly the ways the crisis demands. Horror, on the other hand, tends to focus on dangers that are lurking, liminal, or hidden just out of sight, and they involve protagonists who are completely unprepared to deal with the threat when it will finally come out of the dark. Action lets us escape to a world where we can take on our greatest foes; horror tells us what to do when we can’t.

Straddling the line between the two is the thriller, where events are a little too mundane and the emotional palette too varied for true horror, but there is an intensity and level of suspense above that of conventional action. This can be a really fun genre, both to write and watch. The danger lies in the temptation for the author to pull their punches, to pretend they are saying something profound but deliver escapism at the last moment. And just to be clear; I think both brutal honesty and exciting escapism are great. They each have their place and they can also be mixed in interesting ways. But sometimes they are combined create a garish chimera.

Let’s move on to the review, shall we?

Side Effects

Side Effects has an interesting premise that involves topics that are very important right now; medications, the danger of overprescription, the danger of paranoia around overprescription, the way medicines are marketed to the doctors who prescribe them, the frivolous lawsuit problem, so on and so forth. The main characters are Jonathan Banks, a young psychiatrist played by Jude Law, and Emily, his patient played by Rooney Mara. Emily is struggling with depression and suicidal urges. Banks prescribes her an experimental medicine that he is being paid to push, and as a result, she kills her husband in a sleepwalking incident.

The buildup to the events is excellent, because we aren’t allowed any easy answers. It’s easy, from the description above, to blame the doctor, but his characterization meticulously builds up sympathy for him. His first scene has him de-escalating a situation by culturally mediating between an anxious Haitian patient and a cop, potentially saving a life. He doesn’t see his patients as a pure opportunity for profit. He sees complex humans who need someone to understand them. Also, while he’s willing to take a little money from drug companies it isn’t in a blatantly unethical way. He isn’t pushing it on patients who would likely do better on another drug, he isn’t aware of any dangerous side effects and he is even upfront about both it’s experimental status and his relationship with the company. Emily takes the medication because she can’t handle the side effects from other, more common prescriptions and insists she prefers the experimental drug, right up until the death of her husband. The thing about dramatic side effects like this is that there’s always a first person to exhibit them. It’s so easy to think about the person who greedily recommended it in full knowledge of this danger, or without having done basic research. It’s hard to think of the essentially good guy, the innocent woman and the dead man, all connected by nothing more than really terrible luck.

This story threw me into a situation where I wanted a bad guy, and there was none to be seen, which in an odd way was scarier than any evil monster. I didn’t realize this until the movie, but when things have gone suddenly and irreversibly bad, sometimes the only thing left is the idea of justice, of a cosmic balancing of the scales. Even an unbeatable enemy is oddly comforting; there can be the comfort of wallowing in fantasies of some day when some hero will come along and give the bastards what they deserve. But if there’s no villain, nobody to blame or resent, then there is truly no hope for justice. I can’t think of any way to make things worse than that.

Everyone in the story is affected by this absence of a villain, and in sweep the lawyers and the PIs to help everyone find their bad guy. The temptation to find one slowly topples each character. The most effected is the protagonist, who, realizing he is everyone’s favorite choice to take the blame, begins acting hostile towards his former patient, essentially becoming the villain everyone wants him to be.

At this point in the story I was hooked. Unfortunately, this is also where it decided to massively disappoint me. See, it wasn’t about the horror of realizing that your desire to not be the bad guy turned you into the very villain they were looking for. It was about an evil lesbian conspiracy.

I really wish I didn’t  have to write that. But seriously that’s the only way to put it. Honestly, I think the original piece was the brilliant movie that I thought it was two-thirds of the way through, and then in some writer’s meeting a studio executive said, “you know, I just worry that this story is such a downer. And it’s going to be over everyone’s heads. Can’t we give it a sexier ending?”

And somebody said, “what, like evil lesbians?” before they realized that once those two words were spoken, the brainless studio executive would never, ever let the idea go.

I think that’s really awful, because of anti-vaxxers. And lots of other people, but anti-vaxxers are big in the news right now so I’ll go with that. It’s a movement that is so totally displaced from medical science that it’s kind of hard to argue with. If someone quotes that old nonsense about only using ten percent of your brain, you can explain that misconception came from the fact that we typically don’t use more than ten percent of our brain at once, but it’s a different ten percent from moment to moment so yeah, we use our entire brains. There’s enough common ground to get the conversation going. But when the other person really isn’t interested in any studies except the one, thoroughly discredited one that confirms their preconceptions, it’s hard to talk about the issue at all. Which sucks, because we had almost gotten rid of the measles and now it’s back.

What many people miss is that anti-vaxxers hang onto their theory because it gives them a bad guy. A largish minority of children with autism will, at some point in their childhood, experience a bad regression. Some will even spontaneously develop autism. In a country where most children are regularly vaccinated, the law of large numbers dictates that sometimes the vaccine and the regression will happen around the same time, giving grieving and understandably frightened parents a potential scapegoat. Add one misleading study and an internet to hook everybody together, and you’ve got a community united, comforted by a common enemy. Even if that enemy is a boogeyman. Before you go blaming the parents exclusively, remember that for years therapists did the same thing; they claimed that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms” despite no real evidence or even a clear definition of what that meant. They didn’t know what to do, so they blamed the scared parent and/or feminism and went home able to sleep better for it.

My point is, this issue is a part of human nature that we need to talk about. It is relevant to the times, relevant to our safety, and relevant to our ability to handle a crisis compassionately, and to really cooperate rationally on a solution. This movie had a chance to facilitate that conversation on a cultural level, and it blew it.

It’s probably all Donald Trump’s fault.

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