Sometimes in life you are thrown into situations outside of your control which can leave you feeling utterly powerless. In a hostile situation with no one able or willing to help you, you are desperate. But what if that situation is in your head? How can you escape then? Sawyer (Claire Foy) has been trying to get her life back together after a painful and terrifying experience with a stalker. She still sees him in her day to day life and seeks psychiatric advice to help her cope, only to end up committed to a mental hospital against her will. Is it a mistake or is she much more psychologically damaged from her experiences than she believed? Then to make matters worse her stalker is working at the hospital. Or is he?
Unsane is the latest from prolific director Steven Soderbergh and proves to be an interesting entry in his filmography, being the first horror movie, and solely shot on iPhone. Soderbergh does love to experiment with different film styles and this gives a down-to earth-POV that is appropriately voyeuristic for the subject matter. There is a rawness to everything that gets under your skin, particularly in some very effective one long take sequences.
Claire Foy is superb playing all the shades of Sawyer; barely holding herself together or exploding with previously restrained emotions. She really sells the back and forth of whether Sawyer is being stalked yet again or if her mind has become as damaged and disturbed as the hospital staff are telling her. The problem is that the movie does not hold onto that mystery and ambiguity for long enough. Instead, dropping it and becoming a different story entirely; one of being trapped. It’s still interesting, especially thanks to Joshua Leonard as the object of Sawyer’s fears, but it feels like the more psychological element could have been pushed further. Jay Pharoah also provides strong support as Sawyer’s only possible ally in the facility, and one who might have an agenda of his own. A cameo from Soderbergh stalwart Matt Damon, as a security consultant, really was a mistake though. Having someone so distinctly recognisable in a more “movie star” way really takes you out of the natural style that the rest of the movie has.
The horror here is in a fear of a corrupt system that seeks to benefit from your problems and refuses to help you in any way, and the facility is a nightmare dressed in banal mundanity. However, at the same time it’s not exactly subtle. The only other female patient, Violet, played by Juno Temple (in full white trash mode), is portrayed in the most stereotypical 'mental patient' broad strokes with no room for levels or development. With an added, almost shoehorned same sex kiss to ramp up the discomfort, you have to wonder after this and Side Effects if Soderbergh can make a movie based around mental health - particularly one about women and mental health - without taking it to these weird borderline exploitation places. Girl, Interrupted this is not and if you were hoping for an examination of the American mental healthcare system, you won't find it here.
Where the movie really starts to fail is that when you start thinking about the story, particularly the logistics of how certain characters would have known specific things and been able to achieve what they did within the timeframe depicted... it doesn’t hold up very well. It asks you to suspend a lot of disbelief with little to nothing in the way of helping you understand how or why. Stephen King once said, “nightmares exist out of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear” and that feels very apt in the case of Unsane. If you merely experience it as it is, with all the twists and turns that is has to offer, you will find it to be a very harrowing nightmare that leaves you shaken, but any more than that and there is something lacking.