Almost as soon as we meet Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, best know for her role as Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s “The Crown”), we notice things about her. She’s a hard worker in the Pennsylvania office where she is employed, but she keeps a certain distance, even from co-workers with whom she is friends, and certainly from the boss who seems to invade her space just slightly in a meeting. She is also having issues with seeing things that may not be there—more specifically, seeing someone.
And all of these things bother her enough that she decides to visit a therapist at a local mental health facility just to vent and talk through the reasons her paranoia is absolutely justified. It turns out that in her previous home in Boston, she became the victim of a particularly aggressive stalker named David Strine (Joshua Leonard of Humpday and The Blair Witch Project, with an overgrown beard that is its own source of menace).
For a significant portion of Unsane, director Steven Soderbergh leaves open the possibility that Sawyer is imagining her frequent sightings of David; even she seems aware of this, which is why she seeks professional help. But the second the therapist gets her to admit that she’s thought about suicide—although never seriously—she gets Sawyer to sign a consent form to commit her for 24 hours so the staff can evaluate her.
Upon realizing she’s effectively been tricked into this position, Sawyer reacts quite angrily and even gets violent in an effort to get someone to listen to her and understand that she doesn’t belong there. Naturally, the staff takes her passion for instability, and 24 hours becomes seven days, with the possibility for a much longer stay. To make matters infinitely worse, it would appear that David has gotten himself a job at the mental institution, putting him very close to the captive Sawyer.
Two things about Unsane surprised me. The first is that screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer seems to have crafted a thriller that makes as its villain a man behaving badly. David professes his lover for Sawyer ever since she volunteered to read to his father in the final months of his life back in Boston. There’s a real sense that David has always been an obsessive person but that his strict father somehow kept his passions at bay; now that he’s dead, David’s unhinged qualities are free to roam the earth in search of a target—namely Sawyer. Although the film was made before the Harvey Weinstein stories surfaced or the #metoo movement took off, it feels like its drawing its horror elements from the sorts of behavior that led to these moments.
The other aspect of the film I had not anticipated is Soderbergh’s very specific message about institutions like this committing insurance fraud by tricking patients with insurance to self-committing themselves and then keeping them in as long as the insurance company is willing to pay. Not unlike his attack on the pharmaceutical industry in Side Effects, Soderbergh has no problem breaking the surreal approach to Sawyer’s mental status to throw in this very real-world issue.
In the facility, Sawyer befriends Nate (Jay Pharoah, formerly of “SNL”), a fellow patient who just happens to have smuggled a phone into the ward, which she uses to call her mother (Amy Irving) to hopefully help her get out. She also makes an enemy among the patients, Violet (Juno Temple), who continuously threatens to stab Sawyer in her sleep with a homemade knife, if given the chance. The final act of Unsane might go off the deep end in a way that some may find breaks with the intimate, lower-key spirit of the rest of the movie, but there’s a sequence in which Sawyer finally gets to confront her stalker in a manner that is both deeply unsettling and makes total sense if you’re paying attention.
One of the film’s big talking points has been that it was shot in secret, entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus in 4K, and the camera does occasionally get positioned in places that most cameras wouldn’t be able to get without being intrusive. The picture quality is exceptional, but there is something more intimate and immediate about this means of shooting.
Unsane exists more as a jittery thriller than a horror movie, and that becomes clear as we get to know David. He’s a disturbed man who earned his crazy honestly. He’s not evil but he is a monster who has caused real, irreparable damage to Sawyer, so her actions against him never feel like too much. Although a lesser work in the Soderbergh filmography, it’s still a worthy entry, if only for Foy’s remarkable turn.