What it's about: Sawyer Valentini [Claire Foy] is a young woman who is attractive, ambitious, has a good relationship with her mother, and high performance at her cushy banking job. Her romantic life, however, has become a challenge since a recent, serious stalking incident that forced her to completely rearrange her life. She now insists on one night stands and even when she finds a suitable guy to take back to her apartment, it doesn't take long until she is completely taken by the fear of her past. She even thinks she sees her former stalker in other people. After a breaking point, she decides to get some professional help, has a consultation with a therapist at a normal seeming mental health facility. But when she unknowingly admits herself as a patient the pain and fear she was already experiencing heightens, threatening her grasp on reality. What's worse, the man handing out the nightly medication looks awfully familiar.
Though I'll try to refrain from spoiling the film, be warned that Unsane is the kind of film you might want to know little about before seeing.
With mental asylum films, I've become programmed to always expect the big twist at the end -- it is the perfect environment to distort and confuse, with untrustable characters guiding the narrative. Unsane does something unusual, though, by tipping its hand at the obvious twist pretty early on. It is then able to use the genre conventions to push expectations and doubt even further without feeling like the same old cliched thriller.
At the center of this is Sawyer, an expertly crafted character. She starts as an incredibly simple, detestable person. She is erratic, stuck up, violently emotional, and mentally disturbed in far from sympathetic way. As the film goes on, though, it gives more context into her life and what brought her to her horrific circumstances. And it does it without excusing her abrasive personality.
A brief interlude near the middle of the film goes a long way to shaping the perspective on the character. It recounts the previous stalking incident that has emotionally crippled Sawyer, and while it isn't especially remarkable or detailed [we see a string of unwanted text messages and Sawyer's meeting with a protection specialist featuring a cameo by Soderbergh regular Matt Damon]. It strangely turns a rather undefined thriller into a full-on pure horror film by adding a new perspective to judgments of the character. It also becomes not just the story of Sawyer Valentini but highlights the everyday horrors that millions of women who face toxic masculinity and face an unsympathetic world on a daily basis.
It is these kinds of side moments and scenes that bring greater definition to Unsane and the expected personality of its filmmaker. Another, smaller example is a brief interaction between a police officer and a hospital staffer, a conversation that is totally beside the narrative reason of why these two characters are brought together. Soderbergh is more interested in what is beyond the regular narrative tropes that we expect.
There is a Stockholm Syndrome slash cat-and-mouse plot in the film's third act that is a little less interesting overall. The film becomes more explicit in its themes, with its characters expressing their issues and the nuances of their relationships outwardly. It takes the cool mystery out of the film a bit, though there are still a few shocking moments and the actors are game all the way through.
With all due respect to Joshua Leonard [an actor I've always really liked], he's an extraordinary creep.
Unsane has received attention for the way it was shot, completely using an iPhone [not exactly a unique presentation style any more, though it is still a very specific aesthetic choice]. This film definitely goes on the side of Soderbergh's experimental filmography. I don't think the iPhone look does really anything to enhance the film, though the starkness is meant to capture the raw and real emotions of the characters. There is one particular scene where double imposition is used to capture Sawyer's mindspace while on very powerful drugs that looks really cool -- simultaneous shots of a close-up and directly behind the character imposed over each other give a weird impression of a whole image fracturing, blurring over itself. I don't recall seeing a drug trip experience shown in quite this way before.
I'm not very familiar with Claire Foy's work and, honestly, the thought of her in The Crown gave me a specific expectation of what kind of actress she is. Her strong and intense performance in Unsane makes me immediately more interested in her upcoming turn in the next Lisbeth Salander film.