I suppose you can’t properly call Side Effects, the recent release from director Steven Soderbergh, a “whodunit,” because not long into the film, we see it done; a wife stabs her husband with a knife and he dies of his wounds. The question becomes, “Who’s responsible?”
Rooney Mara plays a woman, Emily, whose husband (Channing Tatum) was recently released from prison. When it is suspected that she is suffering from suicidal depression, she comes under the care of a psychiatrist (Jude Law). He prescribes several several antidepressants, one of which has the side effect (title drop) of sleepwalking.
So if one should commit a crime while sleepwalking, who is ultimately responsible? Is the sleepwalker free of guilt? Is the doctor who prescribed the drug that led to the sleepwalking responsible? Or does the ultimate responsibility fall on the company that manufactured the drug?
(Sidebar – “Big Pharma” is fairly a common villain in films such as The Constant Gardener, The Fugitive, and all those “Resident Evil” films. After all, what could be more nefarious than researching, manufacturing and distributing medicine that bring healing and comfort that would have seemed miraculous mere decades ago? Well, perhaps providing the fuel that heats our homes, runs the vehicles we depend on, etc. but other than that…)
After the husband’s death in the film, a police officer questions the psychiatrist. He implies that it might be in the best interest of the doctor to testify against his patient so that he doesn’t face prosecution himself, because ultimately, “someone is going to have to pay for this death.”
I don’t want to spoil the many twists that make up the rest of the film. If you enjoy a good mystery, you’ll probably enjoy the well-constructed script, competent direction and entertaining performances in the film (including a slightly campy turn by Catherine Zeta Jones as another psychiatrist). But for now, I’d like to dwell a bit on the concept of responsibility.
Medical science has proven that many of our emotional actions and reactions, aspects of our personalities, and lifestyle choices could well be driven by our bodies’ chemistry. In the film, even aside from Emily, we see many characters turn to pills to help themselves cope with depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and a variety of other human ills.
One could ask the question, “If body chemistry drives our emotions, attitudes, and even our actions, are we truly responsible for what we do?” And soon questions of chemistry stray into questions of ethics, spirituality and even theology.
Should we be held responsible for our actions if we are just tossed to and fro by hormones, dopamine and adrenaline? Or could we argue just as well that environment controls us as much as heredity? Surely, if God is there, He can’t blame us for acting as we do. He made us this way.
Centuries before we had the physiological understanding we have today, we find that the writers of Scripture acknowledged we are often creatures driven by forces that seem beyond our control. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7: 15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (NIV)
Ultimately, Paul acknowledges his own responsibility for his actions, and acknowledges that someone must pay the price. It is there that God’s plot twist comes to bear, for Paul wrote in I Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” (NIV again)
We live in a fallen world, and we have trouble enough figuring out our own motivations -- let alone the motivations of others. But ultimately God will provide the cure we need – with only beneficial side effects.
(Side Effects is rated R for language, violence, sexual situations and nudity.)