Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.
One of the realities of the horror genre is that if you look hard enough, you’ll find something that will really play on the fears of just about anyone. Being locked in an institution wrongfully is, I would guess, a pretty significant fear of a lot of people. Being locked in an institution with your stalker would be hundreds of times worse. And that’s exactly where we are going with Unsane. Don’t worry—this isn’t a spoiler. All of what sounds like it should be revealed over the course of the film is in the trailer.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) has moved from Boston to escape a stalker named David Strine (Joshua Leonard), who attached onto her when she took care of his father during his hospice care. The experience has left her scarred enough that she sees David in places where she is sure he can’t be. Deciding that she could use a little help, she books an appointment for herself at a place called Highland Creek Behavioral Center. She fills out a number of forms and is then taken to an examination room where it is revealed that she has just voluntarily committed herself for 24 hours.
After a rough night, Sawyer meets Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), another inmate who is detoxing from opioid addiction. Nate tells Sawyer that Highland Creek and all of the other assorted centers run by the same parent company are a scam. People are tricked into committing themselves and reasons are found to keep them on the premises until their insurance stops paying, at which point they are declared cured and released.
All of this is scary enough, but after a day, Sawyer realizes that one of the interns at the facility is David Strine, who has shown up in a position of authority over her. Of course, he’s working under an assumed name, and since Sawyer is one of the inmates, no one believes her, with the possible exception of Nate, who has somehow smuggled a phone through security. Sawyer uses the phone to call her mother (Amy Irving), who promises to get her out.
What makes the film work is the possibility that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator. How much of Sawyer’s experience is real and how much of it is a result of an actual psychosis isn’t clear for a considerable length through the film. A lot of what happens is just plausible enough to have happened were she completely sane, yet sit right on the edge of the possibility of her being truly insane. She fights frequently with another inmate named Violet (Juno Temple), and the encounters look like Violet’s fault and as if she has instigated them. But is that the case? It’s what it would look like if seen through the eyes of someone who was not quite balanced herself.
Unsane, for those who knew about it when it was released, was notable specifically because of its gimmick. Steven Soderbergh, a guy who’s won an Oscar for directing, made this film using iPhones. He’s not the first to do it, but he’s certainly the highest-profile to make a feature-length film on a phone camera. For all that, the film looks pretty good. If I didn’t know it was made on iPhones, I probably wouldn’t have realized it. Sadly, that gimmick is likely to continue to get most of the press on this film, and that’s kind of a shame.
There’s a lot to like here. Claire Foy is not likable here, and that works to the film’s advantage. It’s a good performance specifically because she is harsh and not pleasant. You don’t know whether or not to root for her (although based on the situation, I was predisposed to do so—more on that in a second). Is she believable? Kind of…? Jay Pharoah and Juno Temple are great in support here and Joshua Leonard’s work takes a very hard turn in the third act.
So let’s talk about what doesn’t work—and that’s the idea that David is suddenly working at the facility where Sawyer finds herself. In fact, this is something that makes it very difficult to see this as anything other than Sawyer being completely insane. Since she has left Boston and moved a few hundred miles away to somewhere in Pennsylvania, booked an appointment with a random therapist, and is suddenly being held their involuntarily, how the hell does he know to show up there, fake an identity, and start in on a job he is woefully underqualified to have?
For what it’s worth, I have been stalked to a minor extent. I had a student years ago who became uncomfortably interested in me to the point of tracking me down in an online game I played at the time and telling me that she failed my class intentionally so she could take it again. This was a very mild stalking, and it was scary as hell. I found out (uncomfortably) where she worked one day when I went to lunch, and I couldn’t go back there for a year. In that respect, Unsane hits the right notes. It doesn’t always hit them as cleanly as it would like, though.
Why to watch Unsane: It’s scary in the right ways.
Why not to watch: The plot requires a massive coincidence or a massive leap to work.