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Soderbergh’s ‘Unsane’ is a Well Crafted Exploitation Thriller

Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is a great movie that by the end becomes merely very good but never really loses its way. Soderbergh loves to play around in different genres and experiments with the form, style, and possibilities of the medium. A fearless director who manages to work outside of the system while still being able to use some of it’s best and most popular stars.

Shot entirely on an iPhone, Unsane is an exploitative psychological thriller that calls to mind movies like Witness To Murder and Peeping Tom. It’s as enjoyable as the first but not quite as keen on indicting the audience as the latter.  Shot on an iPhone the movie has a certain intended cheapness to it; allowing for a gritty faux realism to sprout and grow as the movie rolls along.

Unsane is not the first movie to be shot in such a way. Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a farcical and deeply emotional story of the day in the life of two trans women sex workers, was famously also shot on an iPhone. The difference, of course, was Baker shot on the iPhone out of desperation to get the movie made; more of a choice of necessity as opposed to a choice of want.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is dealing with the stress of moving to a new town, a new job combined with the post-traumatic stress of having a stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard). Her only connection to her old life is her mother Angela (Amy Irving). Now in Boston, Sawyer struggles to make real connections with her co-workers or anyone else for that matter.

Early on she has a date at a local bar. Her date is shockingly handsome and reveling in her good fortune she lets herself have some fun. “Listen, tonight is going to go exactly how you want it. There’s no question. But only one condition, after tonight you don’t call me, text me, or speak to me ever again.”

Back at her apartment Sawyer is struck by a panic attack. We learn later on David was her stalker and she has a restraining order against him. He is a specter that haunts the edges of the frame and Sawyer’s psyche. 

Soderbergh uses varying lenses to give us a sense of two concurrent points of view running parallel through the film. Close-ups and medium shots are Sawyer’s while long shots tend to have some kind of obstruction to them. Almost as if David is peaking around the corner or spying on her as she walks by. Soderbergh, who is credited as Peter Andrews, as usual doubles as his own cameraman.

For the first half of the film, Unsane has a low key intensity bubbling below the surface. The dueling visual styles help to keep us off balance. By putting us into the mindset of Sawyer we begin to understand why she’s closed herself off. But by giving us the distance of David’s point of view we are given a chance to breathe. But not too much; it might be David after all.

Sawyer goes to a psychiatrist to talk about her disastrous date, and to join a support group. She’s asked to fill out some insurance forms and routine paperwork. As she turns her paperwork in she’s told by the secretary to sit and wait. Confused Sawyer does as she’s told thinking she has more paperwork to fill out. An orderly comes out and asks Sawyer to follow him. She does so for the same reason anyone one of us would. When you’re in a hospital you do as your told.

It’s not long before Sawyer discovers the paperwork she signed was for a voluntary commitment to the mental health treatment center. Predictably it never occurs to a sane person that no one believes anyone who’s committed to a mental health treatment center. Sawyer’s own anxieties and outbursts don’t help convince the staff that she’s been wrongly committed.

Apparently, the hospital is running an insurance scam. The hospital tricks you into signing voluntary admission papers. They then declare you in need for further observations and then release you after one week. By then most insurance companies stop paying. As devices go it’s pretty shrewd. Inasmuch as it plays on America’s conflicting feelings on the need for mental health treatment and our bone-deep belief that insurance companies are outright corrupt and do more harm than good.

Inside the hospital, Sawyer befriends another patient Nate (Jay Pharoah). Likable and seemingly the sanest person there, he informs her of the scam the hospital is running. He assures Sawyer she is not crazy. Nate also conveniently has a  cell phone, which Sawyer uses to call her mother for help. Unsane begins to puncture holes in its claustrophobic atmosphere as it morphs into something else entirely.

The script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer switches gears from a taut psychological thriller to a B-movie exploitation flick. While in line to take her medicine she sees the orderly George Shaw, or as she sees him, David Striar. Unsane allows some ambiguity as to whether or not it’s really David. Ambiguity it all but abandons when it finally breaks from Sawyer’s point of view. Even though Unsane operated with two dueling points of view they all included Sawyer as the main focus of the scene.

Soderbergh and his writers show us scenes that don’t include Sawyer and whose veracity hold more merit. Now we know without a doubt that Sawyer is trapped in a mental hospital, with her stalker, David, under the name George Shaw. This works because it plays into the Hitchcockian notion of the whole world conspiring against one person; the machinations of the system against the individual. A woman wrongly accused as it were, who will ultimately vindicate her innocence.

But up until this point, Unsane had been reaching a boiling point that it never really reaches. Soderbergh’s exactness of framing still holds but it feels as if the story slips away from him. Soderbergh and his writers step away from Sawyer’s personal story to focus on the external plot devices outside. 

Dropping Sawyer’s point of view opens up the movie but at what cost? We go from empathizing with Sawyer and feeling her visceral ratcheting anxiety to merely gripping our seats as we become mere voyeurs to the unsuspected twists and turns of a conspiracy story. By leaving Sawyer behind, I feel, as if we’re leaving the best part of the movie behind.

Claire Foy is nothing short of committed and amazing in performance as Sawyer Valentini. While the movie may take a misstep or two Foy’s performance never does. Unsane is a good movie on its own but with Foy’s presence and skill she elevates the movie to a whole new level. So much of Unsane works because of her ability to convey a sort of grounded unhinged hysteria. Even when Unsane is at its most extreme Foy keeps it from spiraling into campy melodrama.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if Unsane would have benefited from some sort of authorial voice that wasn’t a man’s. While watching Unsane I couldn’t help but think of Evelyn Piper’s 1957 novel Bunny Lake Is Missing. In the book, Piper puts us in the mind of, Blanche. A woman who believes her daughter has been kidnapped but who nobody seems to take seriously. Piper plays with how we, as a society, treat women we view to be too emotional or hysterical. Often we tend to focus more on how the woman is expressing her emotions and less on what is causing her to express them.

Soderbergh does this for a short time but eventually drops it in favor of plot resolutions. As the movie rolls along we’re shown the police working the case, David interacting with the staff, Angela looking for ways to get her daughter free, and the other hospital attendants as they watch the news unfold. Piper isn’t so kind to her readers, and the result is a truly gripping and somewhat exhausting potboiler. Soderbergh’s Unsane though feels almost as if he’s growing bored with Sawyer. I don’t think he actually grows bored with her, I’m saying it feels as if he does.

I’m not sure but I’m pretty positive if a woman had written or directed, or heaven forbid written and directed, Unsane would have us running screaming from the theaters from the sheer unrelenting intensity and terror of Sawyer’s situation. As it is Unsane is a really good b-movie thriller made by one of the best auteur directors working today.

Unsane doesn’t land the ending as strongly as I hoped it would but it also never overstays its welcome. As a thriller, it’s as taut and effective as anything I’ve seen in a while. It’s just so close to being great, it’s a shame it’s not.


Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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