Making a good impression working at a bank after moving 400 miles across the US, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a smart but somewhat unapproachable woman trying to move on after suffering at the hands of a stalker.
Struggling to fit in this new city, she reaches out to a support group for victims of stalking, talks to a therapist, and fills in some paperwork. After admitting she’s had suicidal thoughts to the therapist, she mistakenly signs up to be voluntarily committed to a mental health facility.
After having her phone taken from her and being ushered along by various doctors and nurses, Sawyer tries to fight her corner and explain the error, but her signs of (understandable) distress come off exactly how a mentally ill patient would act, and she ends up sedated and forced to stay.
Trapped in the facility with no way of leaving, she thinks her stalker is in there with her – but we don’t know if she’s telling the truth, or is really in need of the treatment the doctors are forcing upon her.
What follows is an extremely unsettling and claustrophobic experience as Sawyer desperately tries to get through the experience, find someone to trust, and get out.
Unsane is a return to directing for Steven Soderbergh after previously announcing his retirement – and it’s a fairly intriguing one, given that he chose to shoot the entire film using just an iPhone. It’s not a completely new experiment – Sean Baker‘s 2015 film Tangerine did the same – but arguably the most mainstream movie to go for this approach yet.
There’s been mixed opinion as to whether the lo-fi effect of the iPhone camera helps to make the film feel more realistic and grounded, sucking the audience in, or whether that’s the very thing that takes you out of the story.
For us, despite the image quality quite obviously being lower, Unsane still feels very ‘directed’. It would have been easy to approach a movie shot on iPhone from a more found-footage, selfie-taking perspective, but you can see the aesthetic vision of the director stamped all over this film.
The visuals are very distinct and not over-edited to compensate for what the phone camera is lacking – the artificial lighting of the facility gives it a yellowish tone, the natural shadows are left to great effect, and there’s a sort of fish-eye effect on the lens that makes you feel like you’re sneaking a look at what’s going on through a peephole.
Soderbergh often keeps the phone camera at one height and pans it round as the characters take action, and there’s a lot of use of symmetry from overhead lights. A shot near the end where Sawyer is running through dark and dingy hallways is mighty effective, and one of the most straight-up horror moments of the piece.
If you’re going into this expecting something Shutter Island inspired, you’re half right. The film starts off this way, making the audience think twice about whether to believe in Sawyer’s plight – there’s a lot of “that’s what crazy people do, and I’m not crazy” followed by eyebrow raises from the staff – but shows its cards earlier than you might expect.
From there it shifts into a different dynamic and becomes more of a two-hander horror than the psychological thriller it started as. It does lose a little of the tension that it had worked so hard to build when this happens, but there’s still plenty of shocks, surprises and sharp-intake-of-breath moments to keep you gripped. The third act descends into something not quite as tight, but still mostly effective.
Claire Foy is remarkable. With a very small supporting cast, she completely carries this film – the people opposite her never really get to her level, perhaps with the exception of Juno Temple as fellow patient Violet.
Her portrayal of Sawyer as a character is brilliantly unlikeable. She’s clearly extremely intelligent but very cold, and yet Foy plays her with just enough vulnerability for the audience to empathise.
Unsane is a very interesting choice for Foy post-The Crown, and she’s also set to star as Lisbeth Salander in another upcoming adaptation of the Millennium novels, The Girl Who Kicked The Spider’s Web. She seems to be looking for something with a bit more edge than the period pieces we’ve previously seen her in, which could make for an exciting future.
Aside from the thriller and horror elements, it’s unavoidable that Unsane is trying to say something around the treatment of mental health in the USA. What’s most unsettling about this film is that as an audience member, you can see her falling into the trap of being admitted, and whilst you can’t quite believe that this would happen, you can also see how it did, and that there’s no way for her to get out. As Sawyer is shepherded from doctor to therapist to nurse, with more of herself stripped away as she goes, it makes you more and more uncomfortable at the thought of it happening to you.
It also raises the issue of mental health facilities like this that are ran with the intent of making a profit – patients admitted and held until their insurance pays out, absent-minded doctors, drugs administered with no real checks or regard for the effect on the patient. Drugs used to treat mental illness are undoubtedly given a bad rap despite being vital lifelines for many, but Unsane is clearly out to show these kinds of hospitals as the enemy.
The stalker element is important, and grows more so throughout. The plot explores how women can be held up as something to be obtained, to fantasise over, but without ever really knowing them; and though the script is centred on Sawyer feeling as though she’s being watched, and that she’s locked in a prime place to be taken advantage of, there’s refreshingly little male gaze in action. There’s also a flashback to Sawyer being told about all the stuff she has to change about her life to try to escape her stalker which makes you realise how disturbing and traumatic a crime it can be – delete all your social media, always enter your house via the back entrance, make sure you’re never included in anyone else’s pictures.
Everything feels fairly true to life except for some very dodgy bits of dialogue, some odd plot choices (that you understand eventually), and a villain that is so overplayed at times, he becomes laughable rather than menacing – though that may well be the point.
Unsane is the kind of film that will have you conjuring up conspiracy theories that the creators probably didn’t even realise they hinted at. A mightily effective movie with a distinctly unsettling atmosphere and fantastic lead performance, it’s only slightly let down by the third act. Four stars!