In Steven Soderbergh's new thriller Unsane
, we are introduced to the film through the eyes of a stalker named David Strine (Joshua Leonard), who is obsessed with a woman named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). We are looking at the world through his eyes and hear his voice, but do not see him yet. David met Sawyer when she was caring for his father during his final days, and became attached to her because of the comfort she gave his father, and in return to him. She became the one thing in this world that made him feel good, so he refused to let her go. Soderbergh takes this simple premise, and then adds layers to create a truly satisfying and chilling film.
Sawyer was forced to leave her home in order to get away from David, but she still is haunted by him in both her personal and professional life. She thinks she sees him when she's at work, and when she tries to have an intimate night with a nice man she met, she becomes nauseous. This leads her to seeking help at a nearby facility that she finds on line. She talks to a therapist, who listens, and then tells her to fill out a few forms. When she is ready to leave, the receptionist tells her to wait a while. Moments later, an orderly leads Sawyer into a back room where she is forced to take her belongings out of her purse, and to strip down. Naturally confused, the orderlies tell Sawyer that the form she filled out asks that she be observed for 24 hours, to make sure that she is not a danger to herself or to others. She tries to contact the police and even her mother (Amy Irving), but when she contacts the police, the orderly ominously asks her if she knows how many phone calls the police get from mental patients who say they are being held against their will. No one is coming.
Naturally frustrated, Sawyer physically strikes out at one of the orderlies, and has her observation time increased from 24 hours to a full week by a doctor who seems more interested in his cell phone than in listening to her situation. During her time at the facility, she meets a supportive fellow patient named Nate (Jay Pharoah), who gives her access to a cell phone that he smuggled in for his stay, and also tells her to just keep her head down and wait out the week that she will be here, as he tells her that this is basically an insurance scam where hospitals keep patients like Sawyer in order to get money from providers. But then, she thinks she sees David working at the hospital as the person who hands out drugs for the patients. Of course the man denies knowing Sawyer, and given her past experiences of being uncooperative with the staff, no one believes her.
It is at that point that Unsane
begins to play head games with its audience, as we initially wonder of Sawyer really is so haunted by her past that this current nightmarish situation is causing her to lose her mental stability. But little by little, there is no doubt about what is truly going on, and that Sawyer is trapped in a situation where her tormentors have complete control over her. This can be a situation just about anyone who has lost control of their life, or found themselves in the care of medical professionals who simply will not listen can definitely relate to. And the way that the screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and Jason Greer plays upon these basic fears is quite brilliant. Yes, the script does drop the ball a little in its final moments, but before that, the movie does a fantastic job with putting us in Sawyer's shoes, and making us feel her panic and fear, even though we are in the safety of the theater setting.
The movie further creates a sense of isolation and claustrophobia by the way Soderbergh has shot the film. He has filmed it entirely with an iPhone camera, which gives the film's look a certain uncomfortable vibe that works with the feeling of paranoia that the movie wants to create. There is constantly something off about the look of the film - The visuals are a bit grainy, but not muddy. And the aspect of the screen is always just a little off. I'm not sure how certain viewers will react to this experimental approach, but for me at least, it further heightened the tension and strengthened the atmospheric experience. And at the center of it all is the lead performance by Claire Foy, who has to constantly be in a state of fear, confusion or anger. Her performance anchors the film, and gives it plenty of nuance, even when the movie sinks into traditional thriller tropes during the last half.
shows a deft ability to make its audience feel uncomfortable, and also has something to say about medical care, as well as women who feel abused or threatened, and how the rest of the world sees them. This makes the film all the more timely. Soderbergh obviously saw this as an experiment with how he shot the film, but fortunately, he has not neglected to give us a meaty story and a character we can care about so that the movie never comes across as a filmed gimmick. This is a thriller that is lean, to the point, and highly effective.