Written by: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, and Jay Pharoah
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Is she or isn't she?
As its title suggests, a film like Unsane requires (if not demands) something slightly unconventional, and few filmmakers are poised to deliver on that front quite like Steven Soderbergh. Now officially unretired after a brief hiatus, the ever-prolific filmmaker (reminder: the terrific Logan Lucky bowed in theaters just seven months ago) returns with a scumbag thriller that’s bold in its attempt to capture a bygone exploitation era’s sleaze and lo-fi innovation. Shot in secret on an iPhone, Unsane feels like the result of a dare, one that finds Soderbergh spinning a familiar woman-in-peril tale into a genuinely unhinged experiment in formal style that also exposes the absurd ruthlessness of capitalism and the patriarchy. Appropriately enough, this is a film that feels like it hailed from a fevered brain, and it’s a testament to Soderbergh’s precision that it’s both a lurid throwback and a searing indictment of the modern zeitgeist.
When we meet Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), she’s toiling away at her job in the business sector, dealing with both rude clients and fending off unseemly advances from her boss, who desperately wants her to join him on a trip soon. In a scene that must be all too familiar for women everywhere, she has to politely decline and can barely contain her disgust as she rolls her eyes on her way out of the door. We see a moment of vulnerability, too, though, when she grows skittish at the sight of a man walking through her office. Later on—after a failed attempt at a one-night stand—we learn that she’s haunted by a stalking incident that forced her to move to Pennsylvania, where she finds herself perpetually alone and on edge. Looking for someone—anyone—to talk to, she seeks out a clinic and discusses her concerns with a psychologist. During an exchange that feels harmless enough, Sawyer finds herself absent-mindedly signing some papers, assuming they’re for record-keeping and setting up another appointment. Instead, she soon finds herself at the mercy of nurses and attendants, as she learns she actually volunteered herself for commitment in this facility. To make matters worse, she’s stuck here for seven days with her stalker (Joshua Leonard), who has taken a job as an orderly.
Or has he? For about half of its running time, Unsane teases the possibility that Sawyer might, in fact, be suffering from delusions. There’s a coy edginess to how it unfolds at first, almost as if it’s hiding something, putting the audience in a position of questioning Sawyer’s story. Given the little we see of her before she lands in the institution, it’s perhaps all too easy to dismiss it as the ravings of a woman on the brink. She is rather curt with just about everyone she meets, and she’s admitted to thoughts of self-harm; we can see that she’s perhaps overworked and reeling from an inability to overcome her trauma. You could easily see how her mind has now broken to the point where she literally sees her stalker everywhere, including in a facility where she’s just been committed. I mean, just how convenient would that be for her stalker, who must otherwise have some gift for clairvoyance to know she’d end up here, right?
Talk about deviously clever: by invoking this familiar conceit regarding a character’s sanity, Soderbergh (alongside screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer) essentially manipulate the audience into subjecting Sawyer to another all-too-familiar fate for women—doubt. We find ourselves almost all too eager to wonder if her story is even real, not unlike scores of her real-life counterparts whose allegations and traumatic experiences are quickly dismissed by skeptics. In the wake of the Me Too and Times Up movements, Unsane feels positively vital in the way it exposes the very specific horror of being a woman at the mercy of a system that seeks to undermine and ignore experiences like Sawyer’s.
(SPOILERS from here on out.) And just when you’ve been led to this line of thinking, Soderbergh reveals he’s duped you: not only are Sawyer’s claims true, but we learn the sickening, uncomfortable truth behind her ordeal with a flashback to when she first had to reckon with her stalker, a disturbed man who became infatuated as she visited his dying father at a hospice. As his advances become more unsettling, she seeks the help of an expert (a fun cameo from a frequent and very famous Soderbergh collaborator) who causally mansplains to Sawyer about how her life as she knows it can’t go on. Because a restraining order can only accomplish so much, she’ll be forced to abandon all social media, walk in well-lit areas (with her keys in her hands at all times, so she won’t find herself fumbling for them in the dark), change all of her locks, and other outrageous measures just so she can live her life.
Again, I can only imagine women in the audience identifying this on at least some level because this is what we do as a society: rather than curb abhorrent behavior from men, we somehow further victimize women by putting the onus on them. Don’t wear that revealing outfit, some tell them; definitely don’t walk down dark streets alone, some warn, oblivious that they’re only reinforcing the sexism that allows this shit to thrive in the first place. In Unsane, yet another woman is subjected to these rigors, with her ordeal being especially ironic: here’s a woman grappling with how technology has played a role in making her life a living hell (thanks to her stalker’s incessant calls and texts), all presented through the intimate lens of a device so many of us are privileged to enjoy without a second thought.
As Sawyer spends more time in the facility, we see Soderbergh and company wrestling with other horrors, some more universal than others. Certainly the fear of confinement is paramount, especially since Sawyer finds herself surrounded by other hostile patients (most notably Juno Temple) and cruel orderlies. It’s all naturally nightmarish, and Unsane captures the utter helplessness of this situation, inducing sheer anxiety in the audience, making them squirm as Sawyer is sent further down a spiral (in some cases, quite literally, as the threat of solitary confinement in facility’s basement is a constant threat). Occasionally, the screenplay throws out a lifeboat in the form of sympathetic faces, like Sawyer's mom (Amy Irving) and a fellow, kindly patient (Jay Pharoah) trying to kick an opioid habit.
Even they bring bad news, though, as the former is unable to legally free her daughter, while the latter explains that Sawyer’s entire ordeal is an insurance scam, a revelation that sees Soderbergh landing more blows against America’s morally bankrupt healthcare system. As he did in Side Effects, Soderbergh exposes the brutality of a system that thrives on making a profit out of others’ misery, leading to an entire subplot that plumbs the depths of the clinic’s widespread corruption beyond its treatment of Sawyer. It sounds like an obvious cliché, but the real insanity here is how this sort of monetized cruelty freely prospers throughout our country, victimizing desperate souls just looking for help. Lobbing some politically charged barbs in the midst of a psycho thriller feels like an outrageous gambit, yet it’s totally in keeping with vintage grindhouse sensibilities, as exploitation filmmakers frequently smuggled radical politics between bursts of sex and violence.
But just when it feels like Soderbergh will be content to misdirect audiences towards any heavy-handed musings, he embraces the grindhouse’s schlockier roots. Just over halfway through Unsane, there’s no ambiguity surrounding Sawyer’s stalker: he’s very much real and indeed posing as an orderly to torment the object of his sick affection, however ridiculous and contrived that might be. Then again, the film takes at least a little inspiration from those deranged Eurohorror staples that champion luridness over logic, an approach that allows Soderbergh to indulge the twisted premise, even if he doesn’t fully commit to sordid gratuity that defined the exploitation scene. Rather, Unsane just feels every bit as screwy as a lot of those films, a truly impressive feat given how little sleaze is actually on display.
Soderbergh leans heavily on Foy and Leonard’s performances during an unhinged climax that sees the two attempting to outwit each other during an intense, seedy encounter. His micro-lens pushes in tight here, swirling around the two as they exchange both verbal and physical barbs within the bowels of the facility, capturing both Sawyer’s unhinged desperation and her stalker’s oblivious, preening psychosis. What the film might lack in psychological ambiguity at this point it more than makes up for with delirious, violent twists and turns down the stretch, including one especially squeamish bit where Sawyer exploits Temple’s character for her own ends (a move that perhaps reminds us how women are typically pit against each other in their efforts to survive).
Soderbergh’s decision to shoot these proceedings with an iPhone only heightens the tactile grittiness of it all. As the film unfolds, there’s something obviously askew about the angles and depth of field provided by the device, which is alternately deployed to capture suffocating, intimate compositions and leering, stalking wide shots. Both feel incredibly voyeuristic, creating a fly-on-the-wall impression for an audience that somehow grows more and more complicit in the film’s unseemliness: try as you might, you can’t bring yourself to look away from this woman’s awful ordeal, nor can you resist getting swept away by its garish, grindhouse inclinations towards the end. It’s here where the iPhone approach (or gimmick, if you will) takes hold, as the weird, slightly unreal aesthetic mirrors the film’s loopy descent into carnage. Where the likes of Argento and De Palma relied on bravura camera moves in rendering violence into an art form, Soderbergh opts for his signature restrained efficiency by soaking each frame in a sort of paranoiac dinginess, capturing that bleary-eyed anxiety of having stayed awake for so long that everything starts to feel like a surreal, shadowy haze. You feel like you’ve been dropped right into the middle of something authentic, but there’s also something weirdly dissociative about it, perhaps because most movies simply don’t look like this. A fitting contradiction for a movie titled Unsane, I suppose.
When sharing the U.S. title for Tenebrae, you had best come strong, and Unsane undoubtedly earns its keep. Soderbergh not only knows this genre’s familiar notes—the nerve-jangling score, the screwy story logic, the absolute perfect freeze heralding the closing credits—but also captures its beat. Unsane is a more than worthy heir to the exploitation legacy, as it captures the wicked creative spark that often guided those old masters, who routinely conjured up shocking tales of brutalized women, so much so that some critics have noted the misogynistic streak lurking beneath them. Soderbergh seems to be aware of this, too, and Unsane might be a conscious attempt at reclaiming this genre’s rightful place as a legitimate vehicle for exploring these anxieties. After all, that final freeze frame—which captures Sawyer in a moment of despair and terror—captures the utter helplessness of someone who will never be able to escape her trauma. What does it say about us that this image feels just as strikingly authentic now as it did decades ago?
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