Mental illness may just be the last bastion for the mystery-thriller camp, probably because it lends itself so well to unpredictability and keeping the audience saying, “Bloody hell! I didn’t see that coming!” Well, in most cases anyway. Few directors in this genre know how to colour outside the lines, and thankfully for his latest flick Unsane, Steven Soderbergh is one of them.
The story follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), who has recently uprooted and fled her previous life from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape from the man (Joshua Leonard) who’s been stalking her for the last two years. While consulting with a therapist, Valentini unknowingly signs in for a “voluntary” 24-hour commitment to the Highland Creek Behavioral Center under the guise that she is “a danger to herself and others”. Her stay at the facility soon gets extended when doctors and nurses begin to question her sanity. Sawyer’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic when she believes that one of the hospital staffers is her stalker – and she’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive and fight her way out.
Though it does have its problems, Unsane is pretty exciting for quite a few reasons, the biggest being that this is the first major studio motion picture shot entirely on an iPhone. While Soderbergh has been pretty heavily criticised by many cinema purists for resorting to such gimmicky methods, the iPhone gives the film a very deliberate sense of hyper reality – an all-too-real, uncomfortable close up of Sawyer’s unconfirmed fractured mental state.
Here, Soderbergh to his credit, does a bloody good job of keeping his audience – not unlike his leading character – totally paranoid. Like Sawyer, you feel lucid, panicked and angry, particularly in the first half. The second half however, really seems to get away from Soderbergh, where the narrative unravels a bit too quickly and soon becomes a tad contrived and even slightly boring. Though he may have been a bit overzealous in giving over all the answers too early on, Soderbergh should be rewarded for his directorial style, having undertaken such an experimental method for the genre.
Okay, so the plot and direction is unevenly hit-and-miss here, but what really saves the project is the absolute supernova performances, particularly that of Foy and Leonard. Foy, in particular, had become dangerously close to typecasting for her pivotal role as the young and stone-faced Queen Elizabeth in the Netflix original series The Crown. Here, she is almost unrecognisable as the brutally abrupt Sawyer, a tenacious and calculated rat in a maze with equal parts fury and intelligence.
In the wake of the ongoing #MeToo movement, Unsane presents varying degrees of abuse, from mild to extreme, that most, if not all women will identify with. Sawyer is the victim of intense stalking and harassment, and every moment in her life is influenced by that trauma. Though not all of us have been the victims of stalking, Soderbergh does a surprisingly decent job of representing the fear of the daily female experience – walking home with your keys between your fingers, looking over your shoulder on the train, taking the long route around to avoid certain trouble-spots around town, questioning conversations over and over in your head to make sure you weren’t giving the wrong impression. These are things women live with every day, and a film such as this demonstrates the effect that male privilege, gas-lighting and harassment can have on a person.
Unsane is an uncomfortably claustrophobic look at mental health and abuse, and while there are moments of greatness, Soderbergh’s ambitious aim to redefine the genre never quite makes it. Cinematic snobbery aside, the film makes cogent points about a number of feminist issues that deserve more attention than is currently in the Hollywood zeitgeist. Ultimately however, while Unsane opens with a bloody big bang, it finishes with a sad fizzle and – though enjoyable – leaves you with a tiny twinge of disappointment.