Unsane (2018)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

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Unsane is a pulpy little thriller shot on iPhone and with strong thematic connections to the “MeToo” movement.  It begins as a story about mental health, but as many of Sawyer’s (Claire Foy) fears are realized, the subtext and the conversation transforms before our eyes.

Sawyer has a mysterious past, something she’s running from, which is only fully fleshed out at the movie’s midpoint.  When we meet her she is certainly on edge, and for good reason, but the main question behind the story is whether or not we should trust her.  Her paranoia is called into question more than the thing she’s paranoid about, and pretty quickly we find that we regard her with as much suspicion as the people who hold her prisoner in a Pennsylvania mental facility.

Though there is some unreliable narration, from what we’re shown Sawyer is involuntarily committed to spend 24 hours in the facility.  As she can’t understand what’s happening, Sawyer lashes out, leading to several “violent” incidents and an extended stay of seven days.

From the start we want to trust the machine, the ‘man,’ the facility that houses Sawyer and other patients.  We want to believe they have her (and our) best interests at heart, and a story that indicts Sawyer (a single patient) would seem to make a lot more sense than one that indicts an entire line of work.  You’ve also probably seen other movies like Shutter Island and, at least recently for me, Jacob’s Ladder, which put the emphasis on the protagonists’ instability.  This means we anticipate there being something wrong with Sawyer.

Later we will learn that all of her fears are true.  A montage shows us Sawyer’s backstory, that she had a stalker in Boston, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), and this forced her to relocate to a new state.  When she finds herself stuck in the mental facility, one of the orderlies is David Strine.  Because of where she is and David’s apparent kindness (all an act), the other employees don’t believe her when she says this is the man who tormented her.  We don’t even believe her because of her supposed unreliability, but the midpoint flashback will make it clear she’s the only lucid one around.

The second half of the story deals with Sawyer’s challenge of getting free of the restraints imposed on her, now with the audience firmly on her side.  This leads to a pretty gnarly, crowd-pleasing finale that is both uncomfortable to watch and completely gripping.

I haven’t said “Jesus Christ” this many times when watching a movie, at least not since I saw Shoah (1985).

So Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is fantastic.  It might be a little gimmicky, but he’s always playing around with the form.  The iPhone produces a few wonderful images, making you really curious about the camera’s capabilities, while other times the limit of the technology shows.  Still, the wide angle and inventive framing helps keep us both curious and off balance.  There’s a definite energy here, and before long you might not notice the quality of the image unless it actively impresses you.

Unsane is thrilling and fun in the way revenge tales sometimes are, but it’s disturbing on multiple levels, one of which is the ways the audience might feel complicit for doubting Sawyer’s story.  A movie like this puts the onus on us, asking why we might be so quick to refuse a victim’s story.

Also, Claire Foy is amazing, and there is an unexpected but weirdly delightful cameo midway through the film.

Up Next: Filmworker (2018), Hope and Glory (1987), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool [2017, Script Only]

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