Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Stars: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah
I’ve always had a fond recollection of watching psychological thriller films that have a little bit of ambiguity surrounding their protagonists mental state. ‘Flightplan’ is a favourite example from recent years and even ‘The Forgotten’ from a little further back. They tend to be subtle, a little more cerebral in how they handle the storytelling, often leaving the audience on edge for extended periods and wondering if the reality being presented is the truth or a mere figment of a delusional imagination. Unsane is firmly within that category, it explores the same themes as those two, but maybe not to the same standard.
It’s billed as a horror film, but frankly, even now, I’m not entirely sure why because its not particularly scary. Ok, I understand the reasons why they shoehorned it into that genre. Most notably, it makes the film a more enticing proposition to cinema goers, and listen, there is a fair few well trodden horror tropes in there, certainly within the final thirty minutes. However, it’s more of a character driven thriller built around the delicate psychological state of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), the films protagonist. She’s a victim of stalking and a deeply traumatised individual that’s moved from Boston to Pennsylvania to hopefully start a fresh.
The overwhelming majority of Unsane is from Sawyer’s point of view, literally on a few occasions, because Soderbergh often switches to a slightly jarring, first person perspective. It rarely moves away from her time spent at the mental institution and this feels like a very deliberate choice for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s a low budget affair, filmed entirely on an iPhone 7, but also because this is an introspective study. It’s delves into the irreparable mental damage the stalker has inflicted upon her and the battle she faces to be believed once he turns up as an employee in said institute. This psychological powder keg of a situation wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective without the claustrophobic confines of Highland Creek.
The stalker, who’s David Strine (Joshua Leonard) incidentally; is a manipulative and sleekit, middle aged, virgin, oddity of a man. He’s masquerading as George and he looks every bit like a Mark David Chapman figure. The type that just screams “wrong”. He pops up as a medicine administrator, silently taunting Sawyer, cleverly driving her into violent outbursts that achieve nothing other than to further lengthen her stay, whilst he outwardly denies all knowledge of any connection. When ‘George’ first appears, there’s little hint of any deceitfulness in him, which at that point, only further adds to the possibility that the truth we’re being served is a delusion.
Soderbergh doesn’t keep the psychological ambiguity going for long though, sadly. Unlike in Flightplan, he opts to reveal in the middle of the film that Sawyer indeed isn’t cracking up, that her stalker is tormenting her and opens the door for David to go full psycho in the process.
I can’t lie and say that I’d heard of Joshua Leonard prior to watching this film because I hadn’t, but he was second only to Foy in terms of screen time. His character really was the root of all evil in the film, his performance was pivotal with it being so character driven and I thought Leonard was a brilliant antagonist. His presence permeated the entire story, he was mentally manipulating the proceedings early on and went full Michael Myers at the end. I don’t know any stalkers, but I’d assume jealousy and possessiveness would be two traits that defined them. David embodies the two in this film.
The murders of Nate (Jay Pharoah); an undercover journalist, trying to uncover an insurance scandal in Highland Creek and Angela (Amy Irving), Sawyers mother were selfish manifestations of those very things.
I wasn’t aware of Claire Foy prior to Unsane either, this is turning into a prevailing theme here, but much like Leonard, I thought she was very good. Sawyer was quite a complicated figure that had clearly been through the wringer. But despite that and her awful predicament, I wasn’t overly enamoured by her. She was self serving, manipulative in her own way, willingly sacrificed another female patients life to flee and was ridiculously quick to aggression. Despite her constant cries of injustice at being committed, you could sympathise with the staff because her actions often mirrored that of a mentally unstable person.
There was a weird insurance scam, side plot about sane people being wrongfully committed that felt superfluous to main story and never really got fleshed out. I’m not sure what Soderbergh was trying to accomplish with it, but whatever it was, it went over my head.
Speaking of the director, I mentioned previously that he filmed Unsane in a rather unique way, with the entirety of the film being shot using an iPhone 7. I can only imagine this is the biggest release to have ever been shot with a smartphone and although it’s not going to be winning any technical awards at the Oscars, I actually didn’t mind it that much. The low light scenes did often descend into unrefined blurriness, admittedly, but he’s a fantastic cinematography and despite the uneven visual quality, the film more than made up for it in the way he weaved the ‘camera’ around. You have to commend his low budget ingenuity.
Let’s be honest here, Unsane isn’t the best film I’ve ever seen, nor is it another ‘A Quiet Place’ that took an interesting concept, combined it with a low budget and made magic happen. It’s a solid enough, little psychological/thriller film with some horror elements that had a decent enough plot, an enjoyably frenetic final act, with a couple of interesting characters and two solid performances. The score wasn’t particularly memorable and the visuals were ok. If you’re bored, with some free time on your hands and this pops up on the tv then I’d recommend giving it a watch because it’s decent.