That’s the answer to the question posed by Unsane’s marketing: “Is she or isn’t she?”
Has Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) been committed to a mental institution against her will, or does she belong there? Is she hallucinating a vision of her stalker, or has he found a way to get to her even in a tightly controlled hospital? It’s a question designed to get people in the door, I get that. But those looking for an exploration of that idea will be disappointed – and those worried that Unsane will be another thriller that demonizes the mentally ill might be pleasantly surprised. It’s pretty clear what the score is once the film enters the institution: this isn’t about a woman’s ambiguous sanity, it’s about the ways society forces women to be polite to the men who don’t deserve it.
What makes Unsane truly scary isn’t the stalker (although, yes, David Strine (Joshua Leonard) is appropriately chilling), it’s the legion of people who are “just doing their jobs.” It’s the doctor who ends every conversation with “to be continued” when a patient comes to him for help. It’s the therapist who tricks Sawyer into talking about suicide only so the hospital will have an excuse to commit Sawyer as part of an insurance scam. The fact that you can be legally kept hostage for profit is nothing short of terrifying. In fact, I would’ve preferred a ultra-problematic asylum with deranged patients and evil doctors rather than the inhumane monolith that is the American mental health industry, because then it would be easier for me to sleep at night.
Unsane makes it known early on that Sawyer isn’t hallucinating; David has indeed found his way into the hospital where she’s being held for a week so the administration can bleed her insurance. There’s no legal recourse for her escape, and since Sawyer had admitted to her therapist that she had been traumatized by David, no one believes it’s really him. But…it is a little coincidental that this one particular doctor is staring at her through a window and slipping her strong hallucinogens in with her regular dose of medication, right? Even if the worthless bureaucrats don’t notice, the audience certainly does. Unsane is about David’s twisted pursuit of Sawyer. When the movie really drills in on its true conflict, it’s absolutely hypnotic.
The film plays its hand a bit early in a scene where Sawyer’s boss flirts with her. She obviously has little interest in him and tries to play it off well, but he doesn’t get the hint and persists. She should be able to tell him “no” firmly and not fear repercussions, but we as a society expect her boss to retaliate and cut her career off at the knees. In order to survive at the hospital, Sawyer has to keep her head down, be quiet, and pretend as if the man who terrorized her isn’t standing right in front of her every night with a disposable cup full of mandatory pills. She should be able to leave and escape this dangerous man, but she has to remain in captivity so a metaconglomerate can make a couple extra bucks. Unsane doesn’t want you to question Sawyer, it demands that you believe her.
Soderbergh’s “retirement” did little to dull his inherent filmmaking skills as he took a page from Tangerine director Sean Baker and shot Unsane on an iPhone 7 Plus, applying his trademark detached framing to a device better suited for shooting birthday parties than psychological thrillers. By changing the method of delivery, Unsane’s beige hallways and menacing orderlies feel uncomfortably real. Since the movie was shot on a modern smartphone, a device an overwhelming majority of the audience likely had to silence before the movie started, it’s just that much easier to feel threatened. The movie even sounds like it was shot on an iPhone from time to time, with plenty of ambient noise and spoken dialogue occasionally echoing off the walls.
It’s interesting to look at Unsane as part of an unofficial trilogy with Contagion and Side Effects – Soderbergh clearly sees something in the healthcare industry, using it to explore the thriller, disaster movie, and pulp genres, respectively. There’s nobody more upset about the inhumanity of American healthcare than Steven Soderbergh. And to be fair, it certainly is a system designed to profit off sick people, but it’s also interesting to see it through the lens of a great filmmaker.
Unsane is not the movie detractors feared it to be, but it’s also not what you might have been sold. It’s a worthwhile thriller so long as you understand what this movie really is, and if you legitimately care about Soderbergh’s body of work, you owe it to yourself to keep following his post-retirement career.
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