What is it like to be a victim but have no one believe you. That’s what is explored in Steven Sodebergh’s wonderfully engrossing, and experimental new film “Unsane”. We begin with the voice of a creepy stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard) describing the woman he’s obsessed with Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). The screen is filled in a forest marked with shades of blue which is the color Sawyer was wearing when David first saw her. It is a purposefully distorted image even more so given the film’s unique use of an iPhone 7 plus.
From there we meet Sawyer, a hard as nails though somewhat neurotic ambitious career woman. We see her at work where she has to shoot down advances from her boss when he proposes to take her to a business conference for the weekend but it’s pretty evident he has something else on his mind. Later she goes on a tinder date and takes the guy to her apartment fully willing for a one night stand, until things get too intense and she recoils.
Sawyer is still traumatized by her stalker and decides to make an appointment with a therapist to tell her story. She is then asked to fill out some forms and just like that, she has voluntarily committed herself for 24 hour observation. Sawyer doesn’t recall ever committing herself, but she is soon taken to a room where someone takes away her belongings and she is asked to strip to her underwear. This experience causes her to unwind and she tries to call the police, but they are so used to patients calls, they don’t take it seriously.
In a fit of frustration and defensiveness, Sawyer strikes an inmate, and accidentally punches an orderly in the face when he bears the striking resemblance of her stalker. Due to her violent nature, a week is added to her tenure, and as if that isn’t punishment enough Sawyer begins seeing her actual stalker David Strine as an orderly who is handing out medication, yet no one believes her when she tells them.
The most unsettling thing about “Unsane” is how everything in it feels frighteningly real, I left the theatre thinking this could actually happen which made my skin crawl. But what this film does so well is how it puts us in the head of Sawyer who is the real victim. Throughout the film she is convinced of what she is seeing, yet no one listens to her. You could draw a real parallel with the watershed moment happening now with the “#metoo movement where women who were not believed for years are now being listened to. For Sawyer it’s one horrific moment to see her stalker in front of her controlling her medication, it’s another for no one to believe her when it’s happening.
As Sawyer, Claire Foy is on edge throughout the whole film, she is magnificent as someone who is trying to keep her intense fear and pain in check as she is desperately trying move on. Also as David, Joshua Leonard is the most subtle of monsters, the way he moves, and speaks in such a quiet childlike tone had me look away more than once.
The rest of the cast glow as well including Jay Pharoh playing Sawyer’s only ally in the facility, and who may be more than he’s letting on himself. Amy Irving has a few brief scenes as Sawyer’s mother, the only one who seems to believe her and tries to help her on the outside, but it often shut down by bureaucrat.
The film isn’t very long, clocking in at a little over 90 minutes, which makes this story really tight and lean, meaning there is little levity. Unlike last year’s “Get Out” which was another socially conscious horror film and could pause with moments of dark humour, “Unsane” practically locks us in with the protagonist throughout, and we feel no relief in the film until she does.
This credit of keeping things tight can be given to Sodebergh but also the screenwriters Jonathon Bernstein and James Greer who have crafted a very smart script with very realistic situations. There may have been a couple of times, where I felt the realism of the film was lost, however without giving anything away, I felt the ending had a very satisfying conclusion. We are left with a final shot that felt like something right out of a 1970s paranoid thriller which is something I think Sodebergh was trying to invoke and even update with the iPhone shooting style.
Steven Sodebergh is a very special kind of director, he’s able to go in and out of Hollywood style genre films to more experimental fare such as this one. Looking back at his catalogue, one could also argue just how much of a liberal filmmaker he is. Even though he mostly works in different genres there is an underlying theme of rebellion against the status quo. It’s not a coincidence that one of the main villains in “Unsane” are the corporate healthcare administrators who are responsible for putting Sawyer in a place with her stalker is. They are also the ones who don’t listen to her, Sodebergh doesn’t shy away at how corrupt he thinks corporations can get, which is no wonder you can feel paranoid after you leave the film.