Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Unsane

My notes on Steven Soderbergh’s horror film Unsane, out in the UK March 23.

The long first act of Steven Soderbergh’s miniature thriller – scripted by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, and shot on a phone – is intensely focused on its protagonist, a young bank employee improbably named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), and deliberately disorienting … with the sort of narrative ellipses that effectively convey (at the least) frayed nerves but also mean you’ll have to take a second look to parse exactly what has happened in several key scenes that relate to Sawyer’s state of mind.  Everything seems to oppress her – an irritated customer on the phone, a creepily lecherous manager in his office, a seemingly random guy she hooks up with on a date but freaks out at, her Mom (Amy Irving) wondering why she’s upped and left her old life to move to a new city (Boston) where she doesn’t know anyone.


Trying to get on an even keel, she visits the anonymous Highland Creek mental health facility to talk with a counselor (Myra Lucretia Taylor) about her problems – which she says were caused by an extreme stalking experience back home – and finds, when she’s not explicitly denied a mild enquiry about self-harm, that a box has been ticked and she’s now subject to detention for observation overnight, and when she reacts to that by calling the cops – who are matey with the staff at the facility – or attacking staff and other inmates that gets extended to a week. Then she takes a look at George Shaw (Joshua Leonard) — the big, bearded male nurse who hands out her meds – and seems to recognise him as David Strine, the guy she says has been stalking her …


On the ward with Sawyer are clued-in black guy Nate (Jay Pharoah), who claims to be on a Shock Corridor-like mission to expose the facility’s corruption (it’s in their interest to get walk-ins committed so they can scam their insurance companies), and jittery hostile nut Violet (Juno Temple), who keeps calling Sawyer ‘Alison’.  Nate has a hidden phone and Violet has a spoon sharpened into a shiv – both of which serve a plot function.  The bland, untherapeutic facility is creepy enough, but the meat of the horror comes in the way the heroine finds herself at the mercy of someone who professes to be obsessively in love with her but is actually a seething mess of probably homicidal resentments.  The film plays cat and mouse with whether we should take Sawyer’s word for it that George really is David, and credibility is deliberately stretched for a third act that defaults a little to slasher movie tropes … but also serves as a reminder of how good Soderbergh is at full-on suspense mechanics.


Foy, surrounded by actors taller than her, is a challenging identification figure – spiky enough to make everyone around her (and the audience) suspect she might be even crazier than the crooked asylum wants her to be, and sputtering unsubstantiated accusations that even the most devoted #metoo believe-the-victim supporter would find a bit of a stretch.  And she’s matched by Leonard as her perhaps-imaginary nemesis, who does the occasional gloat to camera (and Sawyer) that seems to confirm her worst stories but then pulls back and almost convinces everyone that he’s just trying to do a decent job in a difficult situation.


Here’s a trailer.


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