Steven Soderbergh’s new movie asks a simple question, Is Sawyer Valentini’s greatest fear real or a delusion? Starring Claire Foy and Jay Pharoah, it takes the legendary director back to basics. Shot entirely with an iPhone camera, it only cost $1.2 million to make.
Foy plays Valentini, a businesswoman with an unhappy life. After a bad one-night stand leads to a panic attack she consults a head-shrinker at a facility called Highland Creek Behavioural Health Facility. In their meeting she divulges something that has been plaguing her, a former stalker. Even though she moved 450 miles away he still haunts her mind. “Rationally I know this is my imagination, but I’m alone in a big city and I never feel safe,” she says, “not for one minute.” Tricked into committing herself—“ There’s some more forms you need to fill out, it’s just routine.”—she is thrust into a house of horrors, surrounded by troubled patients—like the belligerent Violet (Juno Temple)—many, like her, who are there against their will. Her pleas for release fall on deaf ears. Worse, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard) works in the psychiatric ward as an orderly. Or does he? “This man, he’s followed me all the way here from Boston. I’m calling the cops and I want him arrested!”
“Unsane” is a nightmare that stems from not reading the fine print. “They got meds,” says fellow inmate Nate (a terrific Jay Pharoah). “You got insurance. You talk, they find a way to get you committed and you stay as long as your insurance will pay. When they stop paying, you’re cured!” Sawyer’s situation is a political comment on insurance scams and locking up people for profit. It’s a #MeToo thriller—no one believes her stories of stalking—but really, at its heart, “Unsane” is a Gothic b-movie that owes a debt to “The Snakepit” and “Shock Corridor” with some “Gaslight” thrown in for good measure. It’s an examination of women’s voices not being heard of a crumbling medical infrastructure but mostly it’s about Sawyer’s world falling apart and her frustration at not being able to do diddly-squat to put it back together.
Foy is in almost every frame, bringing a frail yet steely presence to the role. She is more than a damsel in distress. By turns charming, cunning, ruthless and jittery, she’s a character designed to keep us guessing. Does she belong in the facility or not? “The Queen” star navigates Sawyer’s personality shifts, zigging and zagging, keeping the audience tantalizingly in the dark as to the truth of her mental state.
“Unsane” has a few clunky moments that detract from the overall feeling of paranoia Soderbergh builds throughout. Beautifully composed and edited “Unsane” still looks like it was shot on an iPhone. Often blown out or bathed in inky blacks it’s an aesthetic we’ve become used to from Instagram and social media videos and it brings and naturalism to the surreal story.
“Unsane” may be low tech but it’s not amateurish. Soderberg expertly builds tension to the point where Sawyer’s frustration is palpable.