Unsane is the newest movie from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Coming from a large background of films spanning almost every genre, I found myself cautiously optimistic walking into the theater. Soderbergh has worked in medical thrillers before with films like Contagion and Side Effects, but has never really been behind the camera for a full-on horror film. Acting as producer for psychological thrillers such as The Jacket, I was hopeful that this would have that same claustrophobic feeling of questioning one’s own sanity.
Unsane follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), starting a new life in a new city. She has a new place and a new job far from where her old life was but something is troubling her. Sawyer was the victim of a stalker named David (Joshua Leonard). It’s implied that the stalking was so severe that she uprooted and moved far to escape for fear of her safety. To help cope with the anxiety of an unfamiliar city, and the haunting memory of David, she seeks counseling. Highland Creek Behavioral Center offers support groups for people with trauma. During her conversation with the therapist, Sawyer mentions some of her darker thoughts of suicide in the past. From there the therapist has her fill out some standard paperwork, unwittingly signing herself up for voluntary commitment. Now unable to leave the center, David starts showing up along with the staff. Is it her trauma or has her stalker finally found her with no way of leaving.
Unsane is trying to do a lot with a ninety-eight minute run time. With the first half of the film focusing on Sawyer’s involuntary commitment, it attempts to tackle themes focusing on the health care system. We are shown a world (not unlike our own) where patients are scammed into commitment to charge their insurance companies, and all mental illness is met with startling passivity. The second half of Unsane deals with stalking culture and how stalking has impacted life in the digital age. Through a flashback of Sawyer’s life in Boston we see the extremity of how stalking impacts a person’s life. The film did well in focusing on each of these in their own right. The unfortunate part is that it doesn’t fully give itself to any one of these themes, with the others filling out the backdrop of the film. Each point is treated like side thoughts rather than full plot points.
One of the biggest strengths to Unsane is the cinematography. The film was captured in 4k through the use of an iPhone 7 Plus. This is not hard to see because the film looks rough, real, and close. The film is captured in the vein of a found footage film minus the gimmicks. You are looking through a window into someone’s nightmare. The camera tends to be close in most scenes, but it’s not clear if this was a stylistic choice or a limitation of the equipment. This closeness works to the advantage of Unsane as we explore the claustrophobic behavioral center. You feel the crowded atmosphere in the film and the loss of individuality that Sawyer is experiencing after being lumped in with the more damaged patients.
Lighting can be a bit of an issue but that’s to be expected with the technology. While dark scenes show the contrast between shadows and highlights, the brighter scenes come across more washed out. There are also some instances where night vision and day for night filters are used. These actually hurt the film, pulling you out of the story, working against the closeness of the camera.
Claire Foy does a fantastic job portraying a jaded individual, with a wide range of emotions. She can be quiet and off putting, and for a good while I wasn’t sure if she was someone to empathize with or disregard. Her panic and depression are front and center as a relenting sense of hopelessness grows inside her. The supporting cast their numerous neurosis were on-point. The opposite of Foy’s character is Joshua Leonard as stalker David Strein. Although he comes into play during the latter half of Unsane his performance is uncomfortable, but in a good way. At first he makes you feel uncertain if he is what Sawyer claims him to be or if he is someone she is projecting this fear onto. As we are allowed to explore the character, his true nature comes into play. He is overbearing and sincere but asserts himself in a strong manner that makes you inch closer and closer to the exit door.
Overall Unsane is a mixed bag for a psychological horror film. While the film does go into the psychological horror sub-genre territory, it doesn’t fully commit. It flies and falls with the choices that it takes to its themes, cinematography, and pacing. It tries to juggle multiple topics that leave it never fully involved with a single one. The marketing for the film depicted more of a focus on the question of sanity more than it actually is. The moments of uncertainty in Sawyer’s sanity were brief and left me wanting more. It moved fast between the dark side of the health care system and a paint-by-the-numbers stalker thriller. The real show stealer though, is the cinematography of the film. The technology shows that no limitations stop the creativity in the framing, lighting, and claustrophobic atmosphere it creates. Although the film stumbles from time to time, it certainly wants you to see what’s really behind the walls of our health care system and our own traumas.
Unsane is directed by Steven Soderbergh and was released theatrically March 23, 2018. The film stars Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, and a cameo appearance by Matt Damon. The film was released through Soderbergh’s Fingerprint Releasing banner and Bleecker Street.