Is She or Isn't She? — Steven Soderbergh's Newest Experimental Film is a Woman's Worst Nightmare
A stripped down psycho-thriller supported with claustrophobic cinematography and strong performances, “Unsane” will keep you buzzing with abrasive anxiety for days.
By Jacey Aldredge
Being a woman is just damn hard. We’re told that we’re crazy our whole lives for one reason or another, when most of the time, we’re so sane it’s scary. We learn from a young age to “stay aware” and to “keep your keys in your hands” at all times, yet when we claim foul play we’re rarely believed. Feeling a simmering sense of paranoia regardless of if you’re walking alone in an alleyway or simply to your mailbox at night is just a part of it, and for the most part, it might all be an unnecessary precaution... but what if it isn’t?
Steven Soderbergh’s second post-retirement project “Unsane” is an exploration into the very real fears that keep us checking our back seats before getting in the car, and it will leave you feeling unsettled and uneasy long after you leave the theater. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, “The Crown”) is a young banking professional who recently relocated from her home in Boston to Pennsylvania after being harassed by a stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard, "The Blair Witch Project"), for two years. Suffering from severe paranoia and thoughts of suicide, Valentini finds herself involuntarily committed to a seven day stay at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center after the doctors and nurses begin to question her sanity. She soon believes that her stalker is now employed at the facility and, unwilling to be a victim of his again, she does whatever it takes to get out.
“Unsane” is a stripped down psychological thriller layered with medical malpractice, insurance scams, and a woman who may (or may not) be crazy. And yes, it was filmed with an iPhone. At first glance, it’s gritty, poorly-lit, and more than anything, claustrophobic as hell. Invasive in nature, “Unsane” will make you feel as though you’re violating Sawyer Valentini’s privacy— it’s a pointedly unpleasant viewing experience, and Soderbergh knows it. He filmed most of these scenes from a low vantage point, meaning the viewer is involuntarily forced to feel minimalized; however, it’s this feeling of subordination that intensifies the abrasive storyline. Similar to Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” there’s a Peeping Tom element throughout the film, from scenes of Foy’s Sawyer shot behind the cover of foliage to shuddersome moments between Foy and Leonard that feel inappropriate to watch.
Although experimental film work is nothing new to Academy Award-Winning Soderbergh, whom in the past has released films such as 2005’s “Bubble” which featured a cast of non-actors, and the porn-star led “The Girlfriend Experience” in 2009, “Unsane” is nightmarish new territory. “Unsane” is grainy and unafraid of appearing amateur— it looks real, feels real, and the performances seal the deal. There’s Violet (Juno Temple) who looks like she just walked out of A24’s “Spring Breakers.” In another decade, Violet would be considered the Lisa of “Girl, Interrupted.” She’s impulsive and spooky and you’re never quite sure where she’s putting her hands. SNL’s Jay Pharoah is enticing as Nate, Sawyer’s only ally in the ward. He’s got ulterior motives, but trust me when I say, they are not what you think.
Claire Foy’s portrayal as the mostly normal Sawyer Valentini is authentic and grating. From the start, she’s no less normal than her neighbor, and reacts as many would to a nasty phone customer or an unwelcome proposition from a slimy boss. She Facetimes her mom during lunch and is wary of men who may be catfishing on Tindr. She signs contracts without reading the fine print. All things considered, Sawyer is just your average young professional. Which is why, when she suddenly is placed into the mental ward (for not reading that fine print), we’re just as confused as she is. Scenes of her speaking with the staff in disbelief as they take her things or force her to strip for a physical will make you queasy; they don’t listen to her pleas, they barely look at her, and after a while, you do start to wonder if those pleas are unfounded. This is Soderbergh’s goal. He wants the audience to question Sawyer’s sanity, even though it feels misguided and wrong.
By the time Sawyer’s supposed stalker arrives at the facility, she’s managed to assault members of the staff (he looked like her stalker) and make enemies with the patients, so when we see (real or psych-induced) David, we’re not entirely sure that Sawyer isn’t hallucinating. As “Unsane” progresses, though, it stops being a question of “is she crazy?" and becomes its meaty true potential.
Indeed, the power-play between Leonard and Foy is what makes “Unsane” the psychological take-down that it is. Writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer were determined not to create a one-sided predator/prey dynamic between the two, and they accomplished this. Sawyer’s worst nightmare might be David Strine, but she faces him with ferocity and manipulation techniques similar to what might be taught in a CIA Clandestine program. She is smart, scrappy, and as her coworker says, she’s “all of the assholes.”
Joshua Leonard, on the other hand, will make sure you never look at a hammer the same way again. He is downright creepy and gives a blistering performance as Sawyer's delusions worsen and her life unravels. David Strine is an exaggerated reflection of the men who believe love equals possession; just as Sawyer will do whatever it takes to get away, he will do whatever it takes to keep her. “Unsane” may wreck you as a psycho-thriller, but it’s also a searing piece on sexual abuse, and how varying degrees of this abuse affect both the victims and those wrongfully accused. It lends the question— are there any safe zones from harassment? And the answer, made perfectly clear by the end of “Unsane,” is no.
Directed by STEVEN SODERBERGH
Written by JONATHAN BERNSTEIN, JAMES GREER
Starring CLAIRE FOY, JOSHUA LEONARD, JAY PHAROAH, JUNO TEMPLE
Distributed by BLEECKER STREET
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit here.