Spoiler Alert: What Was Wrong With the Side Effects Villain?

A diagnosis for the baddie in the Steven Soderbergh thriller, in theaters now

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Open Road Films

If you saw Steven Soderbergh’s new psychopharmacology thriller, Side Effects, over the weekend, you might be left with one big question. If you haven’t, stop reading—SPOILERS to follow.

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Side Effects is an unusual murder-mystery in that the main question isn’t about who the killer is. Instead, we wonder whether the “motive” of the killer—Rooney Mara’s Emily, a depressed woman dealing with her husband’s release from jail—might have been some unpleasant side effects from a new antidepressant she is taking. Of course, those who have already seen the movie know that’s not exactly the full story: that the *SPOILER COMING* “sleepwalking” was premeditated—and all of the typical movie-mystery questions are unraveled by her doctor (Jude Law) at movie’s end.

But was Emily really faking illness all along, or is there something wrong in her head beyond mere greed and anger? And, if she was faking it, how should the audience feel about where she ends up—committed, in a Kafkaesque twist that dooms her by her own protestations of healthiness, to a mental institution? TIME recently spoke with Dr. Sasha Bardey, the forensic psychiatrist who co-produced the movie and kept the proceedings grounded in reality. And, according to Dr. Bardey, Emily winds up right where she belongs.

TIME: What diagnosis would you give Emily, if any? 

Bardey: I think she’s actually a psychopath. A psychopath in terms of psychiatric diagnosis, the DSM IV and now the DSM V, is classified as someone with an antisocial personality disorder—but in more layman’s terms, it’s more of a sociopath or a psychopath, which is someone who readily is able to lie and deceive and manipulate for her own gain.

So we shouldn’t feel bad that she ends up committed.

I don’t think we should feel too bad for her. One of her last lines, when she’s asked “How are you doing?” and she goes “Better. Much Better”—that should send a chill down your spine. She might come back.


Some other problems I forgot about:

5. Most importantly, the Jonathan may well have shot his career in the foot for good this time. Everything he "tricked" Emily into "confessing" would have probably come out during Siebert's trial. She will, undoubtedly, be called up as a witness,  and probably tell the truth; the court then will have to have her discharged from the ward. "But what were you doing in the ward just recently?" will probably come up, where she will undoubtedly tell the court (and thus the public) about Jonathan's "payback" of forcing her to take redundant medication solely for the purpose of having her suffer debilitating side effects. And from there, it can't be too far for him from a malpractice suit (which she will no doubt wish to file), wherein any honest court would conclude by ripping up his practitioner's license, effectively ruining his career. If he wanted satisfaction, he could've just waited for the trial, after which Emily would probably be brought up on charges of perjury. She'd probably end up doing time; not as long as Siebert, but them's the breaks. In real life, the bad guys (going from the movie's narrative that she is simply a "psychopath," and not perhaps simply desperate and bitter) don't always get life sentences or "poetic justice." Them's the breaks.


Few problems:

1. Her first reaction to anger at her husband was to seek counseling; I've always been of the impression that psychopaths are not the type of people who seek help  with their anger issues.

2. I'm also fairly sure that any psychiatrist will tell you that it takes a lot of work and sessions to broadly diagnose someone with ANY personality disorder. I'm not entirely convinced that Emily didn't merely act out of anger/depression/financial desperation, or that she acted WITHOUT Siebert (an older, more experienced and manipulative woman) convincing her that she should (and could get away with) killing Martin. Otherwise normal people, when angry or desperate enough, can bring themselves to do incredible things without necessarily being psychopathic.

3. Deserving or not, it strikes me as extremely unethical for a psychiatrist to arrange for an obviously sane individual to be committed as "payback." Maybe I tend to think the best of people (that people must be proven to have done horrible things WITHOUT justification or an understandable motive), but what if she's NOT a psychopath? What if she will be put through hell, when instead she needs actual help?

4. "Come back," and do WHAT, precisely? Somehow I'm not convinced we're dealing with a female Michael Myers here. I am assuming that they didn't make her "confession" known to the public, because if so how could they justify keeping her committed when she is not "insane?" And if they plan on leaking it to the press after her release (I am assuming they'll have to discharge her eventually; unless we're dealing with the insane asylum from Beauty and the Beast here), she will pretty much have nowhere to go afterwards. How is she going to survive long enough without a source of income or housing to "come back" and "get" them. This is assuming, of course, that the psychiatrist will arrange for her "confession" to be leaked, and not, say, make her promise to leave him alone in exchange for keeping it hush hush.

Did this movie REALLY need a Barbara Stanwyck-from-Double Indemnity-style villain? Couldn't we just have had it be about the pharmaceuticals industry?


Wow, just watched this movie. SO good, but confusing and the ending seems very convenient. I have lingering questions about how it all worked out, but I think the the twists and underlying story/message more then makes up for its faults.