Released Mar. 23, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 38min
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple
Sawyer Valentini (Foy) is a successful and ambitious business analyst with a tough-as-nails persona on the outside, but inside, she’s plagued by constant anxiety and depression following a traumatic stalking by a relentless admirer, David (Leonard). When she seeks counseling for her issues, she is conned by an unscrupulous treatment facility into consenting to ‘observation’. Locked inside with no means of escape, her nightmare only worsens when a new orderly named George is a spitting image of her psycho stalker.
Unsane is quite the determined horror/thriller, attempting to tackle many weighty themes and showcase numerous genre styles in its sparse runtime. At different times, it’s a reality-bender, a suspense thriller, a slasher flick, a character drama, a detective mystery, a police procedural, an indictment of modern American healthcare, and an allegory of the issues found within the MeToo movement. That’s an awful lot of hats to wear.
It’s a hot mess – how could it not be? With so many thematic elements in the air, each progressive scene and plot point often works toward a different goal. They are woven together well enough to keep the extremely busy story out of the realm of incoherence – and that’s something of an accomplishment in itself – but there are times when Unsane feels like a movie that collided into a completely different film of another genre already in progress, and the result can be jarring and disorienting.
So, I suppose it’s a silver lining that this movie wants to jar and disorient you. Sawyer’s sudden captivity into a world of mental patients and jaded orderlies is like an update of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but without any of its mischievous whimsy. Every protest or lamentation on her part worsens her treatment which deteriorates her condition leading to greater protests and lamentations. She’s sent on a maddening downward spiral by the greed of a facility that preaches its purpose as one of healing, and that irony is one of the cornerstones of Unsane.
That premise, in and of itself, would have served for a profoundly uncomfortable experience, but this film is keen on packing in more. Sawyer wouldn’t be in this situation if not for the trauma experienced at the whims of an obsessive man who pursued her as if he were tracking down a prized possession. His increasingly intrusive and aggressive overtures as he grew more desperate and enraged from her repeated denials led her to uproot hundreds of miles from home to start her life over again. If Unsane has a thread that runs throughout, it’s that of greed – the callous malevolence that can be inspired when an insatiable something – be it a corporate entity or a self-centered man – is confronted with attempts to deny them their wishes. Here, in Sawyer, we have a character that, however unlikely, is on the wrong end of both simultaneously.
That’s where things do get wonky. As Unsane approaches the home stretch, it has a lot of plot to resolve, so it gets down to business very quickly. To get it all done, it’s forced to branch off into two separate movies, both of which are different in tone from what has proceeded it. One of those still follows Sawyer, but the other involves auxiliary characters that we’re not much invested in who have been, until that point, on the far edges of the plot. It’s an odd choice for sure, and not entirely successful in sticking the landing.
Despite its flaws, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh possesses the grasp of a sure-handed auteur whose head is still in the game. Many filmmakers tend to be in decline after 30 years and nearly 30 movies, but it appears he keeps himself fresh. With Unsane, he’s made a Hollywood-caliber thriller with a budget of barely over $1 million shot entirely on an iPhone (you did read that last bit correctly). It manages to look great, so he did his part. Another highlight is Claire Foy, who is fantastic as the fierce and cunning yet tormented Sawyer. She’s clearly a rising star and an obvious pick for the role of Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming continuation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Also, Joshua Leonard as David/George has come a long way since The Blair Witch Project (he’s the guy that didn’t kick the fucking map into the creek). He approaches his villainous role like that of a wounded creature, both pathetic and very dangerous, and the scenes between him and Foy exude all the tension necessary to float the scatterbrained concept to a place that is higher than it might have landed with less capable actors.
So the problem with Unsane isn’t that it doesn’t have all its marbles, but that it has too many of them. A more economic script that didn’t strive to do so much so quickly may have led to a tighter and more fulfilling feature. It’s certainly not bad – it’s actually pretty good – but it can occasionally frustrate with glimpses of a greater movie within it.