Unsane | Steven Soderbergh | March 23, 2018
When we meet Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) in Unsane, she is just getting settled into her new job in Pennsylvania after leaving Boston. Her mother Angela (Amy Irving) misses her and doesn’t understand why she moved. Sawyer finds someone to speak to at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center where she confides with a therapist about the real reason she had to skip town: her stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard). David became instantly obsessed with her after she emerged as his father’s caretaker at the local hospice and soon his attraction spiraled into a troubling addiction that forced her to fear for her life.
It’s only that this visit to Highland Creek ends up with Sawyer being involuntarily committed to the institution so they can keep an eye on her. As if being stuck in the institution wasn’t troubling enough, her stalker emerges at the institution working as a facility staffer named George. Of course, everyone there thinks she is crazy and there are lingering moments where you as the audience member are not quite sure what to believe.
Director Steven Soderbergh (last year’s Logan Lucky), working on a script written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, notably shot all of Unsane on an iPhone 7 Plus. The use of the iPhone only adds to the claustrophobic nature of seeing Sawyer confined to a psychiatric ward and, with this framework, Soderbergh has a tool to play with to keep the audience guessing as to whether this George is really her stalker David toying with her or if its just a part of her slowly losing her mind.
Not only she is forced to deal with the possibility of her stalker being there, Sawyer is forced to deal with the aggressive behavior of fellow patients, such as Violet (Juno Temple). But this is balanced out by the smart and resourceful Nate (Jay Pharoah) who seems to knows the ins and outs of the whole operation and is aware that Highland involuntarily commits people to milk all the money they can out of their insurance company until the well eventually dries up.
The script tackles elements of corruption in the medical and mental health fields and the almost unwinnable fight that people have to truly get the help that they deserve. It’s a real-life horror story for many, which only makes it more fitting for Soderbergh to frame this sort of psych-thriller around it.
Naturally, most of the discussion around Unsane will be about Soderbergh’s decision to film it all with an iPhone. For the most part, he really does find a way to make it work in the story. As one would expect, this was quite noticeable in many scenes of low light where the limit of the device was truly pushed, but this also helped him tap into a feeling of trashiness that only adds to the intended feel of this story that often tiptoes into elements of horror (not to mention the score from Thomas Newman).
In the hands of a lesser director, this experiment wouldn’t have been pulled off in such a confident matter but Soderbergh has been doing it enough to make it work in the vision that he ultimately intended. But credit goes to the enthralling lead performance from Claire Foy who plays this unhinged character in winning fashion. Joshua Leonard’s creepy character is equally convincing, and the two have a lot of fun in some of the more schlocky scenes that come during the wild conclusion. The real surprise performance came from former SNL castmate Jay Pharoah, who brought a distinct sense of energy and confidence to every scene. The film really picked up once he emerged and I was quite pleased with his work in a more serious role.
There isn’t much surprise to the way that the plot unfolds; you can more likely than not predict how everything will play out. But to see a director like Soderbergh create a film in this manner and still bring out strong performances from his eclectic cast was rewarding in itself despite its shortcomings.