Steven Soderbergh's 'Unsane' Is a Horror Film Wrapped in a Mindf*ck
On one level, Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is a fairly straightforward stalker-horror movie. It’s the kind of low-budget film we might expect from Blumhouse and an unknown director with a CW cast: Stalker chases down victim in a mental asylum and terrorizes her before it turns into what’s more or less a slasher film.
I’m not sure that I would have liked Unsane that much if that were the only level going for it. It would have been a fine, forgettable final-girl horror flick.
But the metaphorical level, on top of Claire Foy’s remarkable performance, elevates Unsane to a completely different level: It’s a psychological thriller that got under my skin in uncomfortable ways. Instead of just showing us a terrorizing stalker, Soderbergh gets inside the mind of Foy’s stalker victim in a way that fucked with my head for a few hours.
Unsane follows Sawyer Valentini (Foy), the victim of an overly aggressive stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard). To get away from him, Sawyer takes out a restraining order, leaves her job and her life, and she moves 450 miles away to a new life in a different city. However, she still sees her stalker wherever she goes, and in interactions with others, she views everything with suspicion, understandably.
So, Sawyer seeks out a counselor to help her cope with her problems, but the counselor involuntarily commits Sawyer to a mental asylum. This is where the other layer kicks in, because the viewer doesn’t know if she’s crazy. Sawyer doesn’t even know if she’s crazy, and she’s being gaslit by everyone: The counselor admits her, and when she gets angry and lashes out, the institution’s psychologist extends her stay, which provokes even more anger, which only hardens their decision to keep her locked up, until she eventually finds herself in a padded room in the basement.
Soderbergh endeavors to use the mental institution as a metaphor for what it must feel like to be stalked. Sawyer is a rational person, but even she admits that when it comes to her stalker, she doesn’t always think rationally. When her actual stalker shows up, no one believes her. Even the audience is not sure, and this is where the metaphor kicks into overdrive. Sawyer is trapped inside her own head, just as she is trapped physically inside the institution, where her stalker has nefarious designs. Everyone thinks she’s crazy, and the more adamant she is about expressing her fears, the more insane they think she is. It’s a Catch 22 circle of hell.
She’s trapped, and within that trap, she has to figure out how to rid herself of that stalker both mentally and physically, as his own plan to steal her away comes together.
Foy is extraordinary here — it’s a riveting performance, one that I cannot say enough about. She also has a great supporting cast to go along with it, too. Juno Temple, in particular, is excellent, although Leonard is also sufficiently unsettling in his role of the stalker. Jay Pharoah is outstanding as a friend to Sawyer on the inside, but whose motivations are unclear. It’s so effective in parts that it almost feels like psychological torture porn, but I think that is Soderbergh and Foy trying to illustrate not just the mindgames of a stalker, but the mindgames a stalker victim unwittingly plays on herself.
It’s an engaging, disquieting film, but I suspect for anyone who’s ever gone through the experience, Unsane could be triggering as hell, the kind of film that increasingly sticks in your craw the more you think about it and the more you unpeel that second layer. It is also filmed entirely on an iPhone, which is Soderbergh’s latest obsession. It looks like it, too, but that sort of filterless, naturalistic look also plays into the film’s sense of unease. It’s a hard movie to recommend; it’s good, but unless you like the feeling of being trapped inside your own mind, questioning your every thought, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience.
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