★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Pure brilliance. Elegant simplicity. Well if Regency pictures came to me and asked me for a pull-quote blurb, that’s what I’d say. Because it’s true.
Steven Soderbergh can be a hit and miss proposition, and frankly he’s never really done a horror film. OK, he did do Contagion, and that had some of the same beats and cadence, but we’ll call that lower case “h” horror. For the most part Mr. S gravitates towards dramas, a little crime, and a whole lot of inventiveness. No matter the project he always brings an exceptional twist, turn, different perspective, or in some cases, when he’s really on his game, an entirely new cinematic paradigm. Yes, this is a thing, and yes, he’s accomplished it.
Unsane begins in a rather mundane way tracking the day-to-day grind of Sawyer Valentini (superbly played by Claire Foy) a banking analyst of some sort. The pressures of her job are definitely there, but not so much that they are impacting her workforce hustle and certainly not her mental acuity. During a lunch break she takes a call with her Mom (THE Amy Irving) and vaguely refers to some past incident involving a stalker, Boston, and a whole mess of unwanted man behavior. Following the call with her Mom, Claire decides that it’s time to get her head right and checks in with a counselor at a nearby facility.
Again, pretty simple, pretty mundane. It’s not like she was mysteriously wisked off to an insane asylum for the criminally insane. Nope. Just an average visit with a counselor to make sure her noggin’s intact. She and the counselor have a nice chat and then the counselor slides her some “routine” insurance paperwork. Following their visit, a orderly asks Sawyer to follow her down the hall for a “routine” examination. Turns out none of this is routine and Sawyer isn’t being examined — she’s being detained! You see the “routine” paperwork she signed (in) voluntarily committed her to 24 hours in the nuthouse, and following a little scuffle with the orderlies, they give her an extra week.
Sawyer’s fragile constitution starts to melt before the audience’s eyes and the lithium-addled eyes of those around her. Thanks to the kind gestures and words from her fellow inmate Nate (deftly played by SNL alum, Jay Pharoah), Sawyer is able to partially cope with with her (in) voluntary admission to the booby-hatch. The day-to-day triviality of a hospital stay is seen through the prism of soiled sheets, psychoactive drugs, and piles of mashed potatoes and jello. As Sawyer is trundling through her routine she realizes that one of the orderlies is her STALKER! Using the nom de plume George Shaw, Sawyer tries desperately to alert her fellow patients and hospital workers that George isn’t George, but he’s David Stine, her STALKER! In a solid piece of flashback exposition Sawyer confides in Nate and explains how her schlumpy stalker began his obsessive behavior — apparently never gave up on it — and has now taken his hang-ups to the stalk-i-est levels.
Interestingly while the film’s trailer and collateral ads give the impression that Sawyer might be crazy/but might be sane, and while it’s clear Sawyer’s got some issues, Sawyer IS in fact being stalked and is without resources to deal with her stalker’s creepy ways. In the final act of the film Sawyer is abducted by David/George and in a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf tete-a-tete she lets him have it. Sawyer’s a strong gal and she burrows in to David/George’s psyche with no holds barred. Unsane ends with several emotionally and physically brutal scenes. Everyone gets hurt and its clear that the pay-to-play mental health care system isn’t going to help them out of this nasty situation.
Unsane is shot entirely on an iPhone 7. Yes. You heard that right. However, thanks to the fact the Mr. Soderbergh know his way around a film, there’s really never a scene in the entire film where it feels askew, digitally awkward, or even clumsy. It’s a masterful piece of work replete with masterful performances by all involved. Metaphorically speaking, Sawyer’s (in) voluntary admission to the nuthouse is emblematic of our fair nation’s inability to tackle health care and our collective willingness to turn a blind eye to mental health care needs. Try as she might, Sawyer, like we all are, is stuck in a Camus-like prison partially of her own creation. It’s absurd, easily remedied, but in the end it’s suffocating and restrictive. If you’re looking for capital “H” horror, Unsane is the ticket.
Unsane is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Go check it, yo.