Since kicking off retirement, Steven Soderbergh has crafted a hillbilly heist flick (Logan Lucky), helmed every episode of a period medical drama (The Knick), created a weird interactive movie/app thing (Mosaic), and produced a ton of other projects. And just to prove he has more creative energy that the rest of us combined, he found the time to use an iPhone to shoot the low-budget, throwback horror thriller, Unsane.
What begins as a paranoid pot-boiler about a woman, Sawyer Valentini (The Crown star Claire Foy), trapped in an insane asylum against her will, becomes something else quicker than anticipated. The early going focuses on the is-she-isn’t question in regards to her mental stability. Does she really belong inside with the crazies or is she being railroaded and gas-lit? She’s dealt with a stalker, David (Joshua Leonard), for years, who she now sees everywhere; she’s prone to violent outbursts; she’s on all kinds of meds. So it goes.
In this old school exploitation set up, the relative sanity of the protagonist usually forms the narrative focus. But while Sawyer deals with this on her own, Unsane answers the question in definitive fashion in fairly short order. It’s not so much about the mystery as it is about being a tense, twisted, mean-spirited thriller that gets downright nasty and vicious; aims to take down the toxic, entitled pseudo “good guy” mentality; and tries to make a larger point about corruption in a medical/mental health industry that cares more about the numbers than actual healing. And as grim and dark as it is, Unsane also carries a blackly comic sense of gallows humor.
Claire Foy delivers a fantastic performance. She is paranoid, and with good reason, even uprooting her life to move from Boston to Pennsylvania to get away from her stalker. But she tight-ropes along the line where the audience questions her grip on reality along with her. I don’t know that she ever doubts it to the point where she truly believes, but she comes damn close.
Sawyer’s not the most likeable character. She’s often abrupt and abrasive at work and in her personal life, overly guarded and unwilling to let anyone in, and in many ways flaunts typically masculine traits. Skewed gender dynamics form a core theme throughout Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script. Her boss, her stalker, they all act with a sweeping sense of entitlement and bulletproof male privilege. But when she exhibits similar behavior—being sexually forward on a date, speaking plainly and straightforward to a client, acting assertive and confident, or simply standing up for herself—she’s viewed as off-putting, as cold, as a bitch.
David is an all-too-real depiction of a soft boy, one of those men who believes he’s owed something because he’s a “nice guy.” He watches and idealizes her from afar without ever actually knowing her, but believes he understands her like no one else does, loves her like only he can, and sees her true self like no one ever has, even though it’s all a baseless fiction.
It’s taken to extremes here, but anyone who’s spend any time on the internet, dealing with entitled trolls and noxious dudes who earnestly feel they’re owed by strangers they follow on Twitter, especially from women, will see eerie familiar behaviors that aren’t much removed from reality. David’s the cinematic personification of a screen-grab we’ve all seen too many times—a dude flirts with a woman online, and when she’s not interested, she instantly becomes a snobby whore, uppity slut, or a similar lovely description. He’s uncomfortably real, and Leonard plays him note-perfect, flipping from sniveling to faux gentleman to unchecked, unearned rage. He’s absolutely skin-crawling.
Saturday Night Live alum Jay Pharoah turns in a strong supporting turn. He plays Nate, one of Sawyer’s fellow inmates. Funny and grounded and full of useful wisdom, he offers her a tether to reality. But at the same time, he walks a similar line—maybe he doesn’t really need to be there, maybe he has an ulterior motive, or may he is actually crazy. I’ve never seen Pharoah do anything remotely like this, but it shows an impressive dexterity and range.
Soderbergh’s aesthetic fits and enhances the material, but Unsane’s appearance is sure to turn off some viewers. Shot entirely on an iPhone 7, it has a gritty, stripped-down look and feel. With natural lighting and little makeup, at times, it’s almost washed out. Because it’s so familiar, it also lends an air of voyeurism to the proceedings. There’s an intimacy that’s not always comfortable, and at times it’s like watching a video you stumbled across online. Close up shots place the viewer in tight proximity with Sawyer; the grainy images and vague fish-eye augment the notion of warped reality and perception; and Soderbergh, working again as his on cinematographer, sprinkles in long takes that almost feel like found footage and create a sensation we’re in the room with these characters.
Unsane sticks with the uncertainty of the is-she-sane-or-crazy thread a touch too long after the truth becomes readily apparent. It even returns to this well later on. This causes the forward momentum to slow to a crawl at points. Instead of generating tension, the pace flags. Not always great for a 98-minute movie.
Unsane will make a solid double feature with Soderbergh’s 2013 Side Effects. If that’s his scathing, Hitchcockian takedown of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s easy to view this film as his throwback exploitation horror take on similar thematic territory. Unsane proves less effective in that regard, however. We feel Sawyer’s frustration as she runs into bureaucratic red tape and regulations at every turn. But the film never quite hits its target, the mental health business that values profits over people. The overworked, underpaid staff rings true, but a disinterested head doctor (Gibson Frazier) and bottom-line administrator (Aimee Mullins) prove obvious, heavy-handed, distracting tactics.
Unsane works best as a tense, claustrophobic thriller. Fans of the films Soderbergh apes will be able to predict where the plot’s going, but it’s a taut, dirty, wild ride nonetheless. While the film nods back to an earlier time, it also updates the themes and brings the subject into the #TimesUp and #MeToo era. It doesn’t always land, pieces don’t always work, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but Unsane offers a nasty little horror jaunt with smarts, ambitious, and a unique hook. [Grade: B]