Film Review: Unsane

An involuntary patient at a mental institution plans her escape from her longtime stalker in an effective Steven Soderbergh psychological thriller with urgent present-day significance.
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Throughout his diverse career, the famously efficient filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has proved to be at ease with switching gears between big-scale Hollywood flicks and smaller, artistically risky projects. Just as he followed up his star-studded Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve films with the modestly sized Full Frontal and Bubble, respectively, he drops his economical thriller Unsane on the heels of the big, wildly entertaining heist film Logan Lucky.

Mostly set within the confines of a remote Pennsylvania mental institution, Unsane is an often disturbing entry in the genre that draws its visual and thematic inspirations from the psychological thrillers of the 1990s and the likes of Shutter Island and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Finding real-world urgency in the countless sexual-misconduct and assault-survival stories that continue to surface, Soderbergh’s film dissects the ripple effects of male predatory behavior and its clueless enablers who invalidate female credibility.

Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, Unsane follows young white-collar Sawyer Valentini (“The Crown” and Breathe actress Claire Foy), who’s recovering from a past trauma involving a persistent stalker of two years. Relocated from Boston to PA in order to start a new life after her abuser is issued a restraining order (succinct flashbacks give us the details), Sawyer does well at her corporate job, yet struggles to regain a healthy personal life. She suffers through unsuccessful blind dates with seemingly well-meaning guys she dismisses out of fear, while dutifully continuing her therapy sessions and regularly checking in with her mother Angela (Amy Irving) through lunchtime phone calls.

As a follow-up to one of her usual treatment sessions, Sawyer finds herself at Highland Creek Behavioral Center and unknowingly signs papers that voluntarily check her into the suffocating facility for 24 hours. Held at the premises against her will by an uncooperative staff unwilling to listen, and immediately at odds with emotionally unstable patient Violet (Juno Temple, sufficiently spine-chilling), Sawyer understandably displays erratic behavior in self-defense, and her stay becomes mandatory. To make matters worse, she recognizes staff member George Shaw (Joshua Leonard) as her convicted harasser with a disguised identity. But who would believe a female patient under heavy medication at a mental institution? Thankfully, she finds a reliable ally in the mysteriously resourceful co-patient Nate (Jay Pharoah).

In a curious marketing decision, the film’s distributor Bleecker Street is selling a slightly misleading premise for Unsane, insinuating that Sawyer’s experience at the mental institution might be real or a figment of her delusion. Yet, the suspenseful play between reality and fantasy isn’t quite the point of Soderbergh’s film—at least not for long. In fact, Unsane disentangles this brief (but effective) uncertainty quite quickly (deciding in favor of Sawyer’s evident sanity) and proceeds with its actual themes around institutional corruption in healthcare and female susceptibility to its unsympathetic authority figures.

Again behind the camera as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh purposely establishes his shots in a stalker-y sense, giving us both a taste of Sawyer’s justified anxiety and the visual impression of invading the unsuspecting woman’s privacy. Flawlessly balancing her character’s vulnerability with physical and emotional strength, Foy believably portrays a woman all females can relate to: one who knows exactly how to hide her fear and apprehension underneath a façade of confidence and how to stroke fragile male egos to safeguard herself from physical harm. No stranger to female-driven storylines led by intricate characters facing big predicaments (think Erin Brockovich and Side Effects), Soderbergh proves his deep understanding of the unique challenges women face in a world that normalizes bad male behavior. With Unsane, he successfully delivers a claustrophobic, disquieting nail-biter with contemporary significance, through the relatable story of a hardened woman searching for an escape path to survival.

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