Even while keeping abreast of the best horror and thriller movies streaming every month, the services host so many films it’s impossible to keep track of every good movie on the platform. Some movies slip through the cracks.
Side Effects (2013) is one of those movies. Even though it has an all-star cast, was directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by his frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns and has a shocking ending that is difficult to guess through multiple twists and turns, this psychological thriller almost never makes an appearance on “best of” lists. Here is a spoiler-free synopsis before we go into detail:
Originally titled Bitter Pill, the film follows a young wife, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who attempts to take her own life soon after her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison following a four-year sentence for insider trading. She is assigned to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who prescribes her an experimental medication called Ablixa. The medication has an unintended side effect that changes her life forever. And that’s just the film’s first act.
If you haven’t seen Side Effects yet, this is your warning. If you’ve already seen it, read on for a detailed plot description. Spoilers ahead.
A side effect of Ablixa is sleepwalking and one night Emily stabs Martin to death while sleepwalking. Her psychiatrist comes to her defense and in court Emily is found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a psychiatric institution to be observed by Dr. Banks. For his role, Dr. Banks is publicly humiliated and loses his practice and all his money as people assume he was negligent in prescribing Emily the experimental medication.
When Dr. Banks catches Emily in a lie, he realizes she has been lying about everything. He gets in touch with Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and questions whether she was involved. Dr. Siebert responds by sending photographs to Dr. Banks’ family suggesting he had an affair with Emily.
Dr. Banks then pits the two women against each other, convincing each of them that the other has already turned. Emily confesses that she and Dr. Siebert had a romantic affair during their time together. They planned to murder Martin (who Emily was angry at for getting caught doing insider trading and losing the couple’s money/reputation) and blame the drug Ablixa, which was already getting negative publicity. With financial skills Emily picked up from Martin, she and Dr. Siebert also planned to cash in on the fall of Ablixa’s stock prices.
Emily wears a wire and gets Dr. Siebert to confess to the whole scheme. As a result of double jeopardy, Emily cannot be tried again for Martin’s murder. However, Dr. Banks enacts his own revenge as her medical power of attorney and the film ends with him forcing Emily to rot in a psychiatric institution on a heavy diet of Thorazine and Depakote.
While Side Effects went under the radar when it was released, getting only the #3 spot at the box office, critics and fans have praised the film. Time compared Side Effects to Hitchcockian suspense films like Spellbound (1945), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), Marnie (1964) and Brian De Palma’s thrillers Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Raising Cain (1992), and Passion (2012). In a five star review, The Daily Telegraph also noted the similarities to Hitchcock saying “There’s a lot of Alfred Hitchcock in what follows, but even more Henri-Georges Clouzot, with whose classic spine-tingler Les Diaboliques (1954) Soderbergh’s film shares a poisonous tang.”