Spoilers ahead: Unless you’ve seen Side Effects you should probably stop reading. It’s a movie that deploys its share of plot twists.
There’s a moment in Side Effects (2013) that is reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s descent into paranoia in The Conversation. Jude Law’s pyschiatrist character, Jonathan Banks, suspects that the patient he has been treating, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is faking her depression. Jonathan thinks that Emily has murdered her husband under the guise of the somnambulatory side effects of her medication. Because Jonathan is caught up in the negative publicity of the new medication his reputation starts to suffer. While he investigates, his life unravels. His medical practice cuts him loose and he spends long hours at home poring over medical journals and newspaper reports. Near this Conversation-esque juncture his wife Diedre walks in and confronts him with some incriminating photographs of an affair with Emily.
She shows him the packet of photos: there are some of Jonathan talking with Emily in some swanky hotel lobby. She is holding a pink-striped bag. A subsequent photo shows Emily posing on a bed in lingerie, looking at the camera, the same bag on the edge of the bed providing the clear implication that she is wearing the recent purchase. This is enough for Diedre, who is already on edge over his obsession with Emily. After Diedre leaves, Jonathan is not quite as alone as Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, reduced to pulling apart his apartment in search of the bugs he knows are there. Nevertheless, it’s a low point that he must struggle through.
Side Effects is a film that toys with the idea of epistemology at various levels. How do we the audience know what is going on (the film leads us first one way then the other)? How does Jonathan know—aren’t his investigations getting increasingly hysterical and desperate? How do drug companies know what works (this critical look at big pharma emerges as Jonathan gets recruited into a running a drug trial that he puts Emily into and as the manipulation of the company’s stocks comes into play as well)? And back to these photographs: how does Diedre know that he’s having an affair? Well, they show them together and then Emily in her sexy undies. But Diedre doesn’t evaluate the evidence very carefully. For a start, the pictures have two completely different points of view. The first one is surreptitious: two people talking some distance away, apparently unaware of the third party taking the picture. The second photograph is framed much more closely with Emily posing directly for the camera. Jonathan might be the implied photographer of the lingerie picture but he could not be for the one in the lobby. If some private investigator is meant to be the author of the shots then the second one is too intimate for that to be consistent either. Oh, wait, maybe Emily planned the blackmail all along and she got an associate to shoot them in the lobby while later giving her camera to Jonathan to document their tryst. But there is no picture of Jonathan in his slinky briefs completing the circle. It ought not to be a convincing scam, especially as the lobby meeting is precipitated by Emily finding Jonathan and Diedre together at a café and asking to talk to him for ten minutes.
It’s a weak link in the chain of convincing lies that entraps Jonathan. We the audience know it’s a set-up because we’ve seen the secret pictures being taken. It’s such a weak link that I am amazed that Diedre doesn’t see through the fraud immediately and use it as a reason to rally to his side rather than abandon him as she does. But let me put aside this small annoyance at the movie’s plotting to talk about what it says about the value of photographs as evidence (and on the whole this is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year). Even if the photos had been more realistically ambiguous, the point would have been the same: Diedre already has an interpretive framework about the situation that guides how she reads the pictures. She has enough prior frustration with him for just about any range of pictures to become the catalyst for her leaving. We can see this in her first scene, the one where Emily appears desperate for a quick chat. Maybe on examination the presentation of the pictures is a little unconvincing, but maybe I should just stop whining and allow them their diegetic role as visual misdirections. Perhaps we shouldn’t have even seen the photos and I would have been happy with their role as plot-advancing maguffins (like the unseen blueprints or plans from North by Northwest or the mysterious glowing suitcase from Pulp Fiction).
There is another time, though, that photographic evidence is brought to bear on the case. This is before Emily and her accomplice, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) try the photo blackmail. Jonathan, still acting as Emily’s doctor after her not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity exoneration but convinced of her culpability, conducts an interview where tells her that he’s administering a drug that will cause her to get drowsy and candid. He records the session on video. Emily does gets drowsy and says nothing incriminating. But he’s given her only saline, and caught her fake reaction to the fake drug on tape. Vindicated, he goes to the State’s Attorney. Here the interpretive framwork is legal rather than personal. Double indemnity, illegal drugging, he refused to work with the prosecution before — the pictures are unfaked recordings of fake behaviour but it doesn’t matter. The legal framework can’t use them. Like the lobby/lingerie pictures, the actual content of this video evidence is irrelevant. The pictures only work if they can fit into the right context.
It’s a trope of the wrongful-accusation story (although this film isn’t just that). We know (or we think we know) what’s going on. The protagonist thinks he knows what’s going on. If this were all there was there would be just opinions that didn’t rise to the level of belief. Having a nugget of something solid like photographs helps to anchor this belief (though as any detective story reader will tell you, it can disintegrate in a heartbeat), but if the right framework doesn’t exist for anyone else then the nugget is fool’s gold. At any rate the well-calibrated conflict of these two forces makes the protagonist’s vindication almost possible, always desperate, and riveting to watch and hope for.