Whip-smart and scary, yet seemingly off-the-cuff, Unsane is Steven Soderbergh’s latest contribution to genre film, in this case the suspense thriller genre. The title Unsane is of course a flippant variation on the word “insane,” and the writers, Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, are adept at making you wonder about the mental state of the film’s main character, Sawyer Valentini, a young woman working as a bank officer after having moved from another city in order to escape a stalker. She can’t seem to shake her paranoia, and this causes her to seek out a psychiatrist so she can talk about her fears. After admitting to occasional thoughts of suicide, she signs some forms without reading them, that she’s told are “routine.” But one of the forms commits her to a mental hospital for a short time because she’s supposedly a danger to herself and others. This underhanded trickery enrages her, which makes her a very non-compliant patient, and that in turn makes her seem disturbed and causes her to be kept in the hospital for an indefinite period.
Sawyer is played by Claire Foy, an English actress known mainly up until now as the lead in the Netflix series The Crown. Besides doing a dead-on American accent (a talent that always amazes me in British and Australian actors), her performance in Unsane is really forceful and intense. Sawyer is a volatile, neurotic, and not always likable person, which elevates the story out of the usual “sweet innocent victim” territory. We still identify with her despite her obnoxious tendencies, and it makes the whole “woman trapped in a psych ward” theme so much more interesting and believable.
The different narrative strands build on one another. The first is the relatively simple one of “Is this woman crazy or not?”—an element of doubt that the film’s title and tagline encourages in us. Then there’s the experience of being stalked, and the terror involved in that. The picture really captures it, sometimes even to the point of discomfort. Finally, there’s the circular, almost “Catch-22” type of effect where the patient’s outrage about being institutionalized against her will ends up hurting her by making her seem out of control and delusional to the staff. The frustrating, oh-so-reasonable ways that the administrators and doctors dismiss any concerns might be familiar to many people who’ve experienced our overcrowded, over-stressed mental health bureaucracy.
There’s a kind of secret ingredient to the film’s style as well. Soderbergh shot the whole thing on an iPhone. So the movie has that flat, immediate, intimate look of a video shot on the sly. The camera is so up against Sawyer and the other characters that we’re practically under their skin. The clothing and the makeup and the scenery are as nakedly real as you can get—there’s nothing to distance us from the story.
Some reviewers seem a little offended that Soderbergh has stooped to this kind of horror/suspense scenario. Admittedly, the themes are not profound, at least not on the surface. Everything is expressed through specific moods, moods of anxiety and fear—the fear of being controlled by an unthinking corporate institution, and a woman’s justifiable fear of predatory men. The genius of Unsane is in dramatizing these very real aspects of modern life, and at the same time scaring, and entertaining, the hell out of us.