Claire Foy gets trapped in the mental health system, along with her stalker, in an intimate and scary new thriller from Steven Soderbergh.
Steven Soderbergh makes movies about just about every topic, from narcotics to space aliens to stripping to casino heists, but one of the subjects he keeps coming back to is the medical profession, and how absolutely terrifying it can be. Side Effects found the phobias in the prescription drug industry, Contagion watched with morbid fascination as the world fell prey to a deadly virus, and now Unsane wants you to know just how easy it can be to get held captive by the mental health industry. Literally.
Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a banker who just moved to a new town to escape her stalker, and who – understandably – is having trouble managing that trauma. She sees a therapist at a nearby clinic, and admits she has sometimes contemplated suicide, and so she’s told to fill out a boilerplate form.
Sawyer thinks she’s just scheduling a second appointment. But what she doesn’t realize, until it’s too late, is that she was tricked into voluntarily committing herself into a deeply corrupt institution. The clinic takes any excuse it can get to commit people, and then holds them until their insurance company stops paying the bills. Sawyer has been kidnapped by a financial system, and her only recourse – or so she’s told – is to let them do it, because trying to stop it would be hard.
Unsane would be seriously nerve-racking if that was all there was to Sawyer’s story. The fear of having your freedom stripped away, by a system designed to treat you like a resource instead of a person, is easy to grasp. Soderbergh plays out Sawyer’s incarceration with a shocking matter-of-factness. Stripping away her dignity and ignoring her pleas is par for the course in this building. It’s the worst thing that ever happened to her. For her captors, it’s just another Wednesday.
But of course, Sawyer is not entirely well, and she may actually need some medical care. Unsane kicks into another gear when she recognizes one of the orderlies as David Strine (Joshua Leonard), the man who has been stalking her. If she’s simply paranoid, it’s understandable given her circumstances. But if he’s really there, and if he’s really trying to take advantage of her institutionalization for his own disturbing purposes, nobody will ever, ever believe her, because she’s in a mental institution.
Unsane escalates the tension over time, and transforms from an entirely plausible nightmare scenario to an extremely specific one, which could only happen to Sawyer Valentini. That may or may not make it less frightening, but it all depends on your point of view. Sawyer’s stalker anxieties may be entirely in her head, or maybe they’re not, but either way her plight illustrates the harrowing probability that any system this corrupt could be easily exploited by people with monstrous desires.
Claire Foy gives a remarkable performance in Unsane, uncomfortably vulnerable and incredibly brave, with scars that show themselves at inopportune times. Sawyer has to make some unthinkable decisions to (try to) survive the events of this film, and Foy effectively sells us on a character who has the strength to rescue themselves at all costs, but also to make some truly disturbing sacrifices in order to achieve that goal. It’s a deep dive into a very uncomfortable place.
Steven Soderbergh filmed Unsane on an iPhone7 Plus, but doesn’t feel like he only did that to prove he could. He’s able to get some remarkable imagery out of a device consumers often take for granted, but the film nevertheless has a homespun quality. We are familiar with the aesthetic of this particular video camera, and we tend to associate it with home movies. Unsane takes the handmade appearance of a found footage movie but removes the artificial gimmickry, and only leaves the general sensation that this horrible story feels more “real” than we’d really like it to.