I have never seen an episode of The Crown. I don’t have a particular reason I’ve avoided it so far beyond time. It’s on my Netflix queue along with about 40 other shows that I’ve never seen a single episode of, and sooner or later, there will probably be a moment when I decide it’s time to watch it. At that point, I suspect I will join the chorus of people singing the praises of Claire Foy.
For now, though, I come to UNSANE as a relatively blank slate. And, to be honest, I leave as a blank slate as well, because this is a film where much of what she’s called on to do is simply react her way through outrageous situations. She’s fine, and I’d certainly like to see more of her, but this isn’t the performance where I have that lightning bolt moment. This is Steven Soderbergh’s movie if it’s anyone’s movie, and one of the things I find exciting about him right now is that he seems so utterly unconcerned with career-building that I have no idea what to expect from film to film. That’s the way it should be.
Soderbergh is very, very good at the fundamentals at this point, maybe better than any commercial filmmaker working, so he can approach every one of his films as an experiment, a chance to play. It might be about the cast. It might be about the genre. It might be about the film stock at this point. There was a point where he worked to make a musical version of Cleopatra with Guided by Voices, and this film’s script is by GBV’s James Greer, so maybe this one’s as simple as, “I like this guy’s work and that one didn’t work out, so let’s try this one.” Whatever the itch was, as a film, Unsane is a fairly mild-mannered paranoid thriller with a central protagonist whose perspective can’t be completely trusted, and it’s… okay.
Foy stars as the unlikely-named Sawyer Valentini, and you’ll hear that full name about 1000 times during the film. She’s living halfway across the country from everyone she knows for reasons she’s never been able to explain to her mother, played by Amy Irving. As the film opens, Sawyer is struggling. She’s feeling isolated, like she’s made a huge mistake. She goes to see someone to chat about it, and that’s when her trouble begins. She gets shuffled into another examination, signs some routine paperwork, and suddenly she finds herself trapped in a nightmare, committed for observation in a ward with patients including Violet (Juno Temple) and Nate (Jay Pharoah), desperate to convince everyone that she’s in the wrong place. That’s a perfectly fine premise for a thriller even before they layer in the complication — there’s an orderly at the mental hospital who is the stalker who led Sawyer to flee Boston in the first place. No one else believes her, but she’s convinced that he’s David Strine (Joshua Leonard), the man who made her life hell, and not only does he now have access to her, but he even has control over her.
There’s something potent and awful about her dilemma, and Claire Foy is certainly good at communicating panic and creeping fear over the course of the film. Joshua Leonard, who was of course part of the iconic cast of The Blair Witch Project, does a good job here as Strine, even if there’s never really any question for the audience about whether or not he’s what she claims he is. Ultimately, a film like this posits a game that it’s playing with us as the audience. Do we trust this person we’re watching? Is this storyteller playing fair with us? And I’m down for that kind of thing. Unsane plays all of its cards early, though, and then there’s nothing left after that. Once you know what’s going on, it just… keeps going on. There were times where Leonard’s work reminded me of what Mark Duplass is doing in the Creep films, this acidic interpretation of these passive monsters, using “nice” as a mask for awful things. It’s good to see Leonard doing this kind of work, and I hope other filmmakers give him more to do in the future, but because Unsane offers so few kinks or twists, he’s trapped playing a pretty one-note version of this kind of character.
Jay Pharoah probably fares the best overall. His character is under observation for similar reasons as Sawyer, and he helps her navigate this weird new landscape. There are plenty of movies that play with similar tropes, the idea of a sane person trapped in an insane situation. I just watched Curtains for the ‘80s-themed podcast I co-host, in which an actress researching a role has herself committed, and the classic of the genre remains Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, about a reporter chasing a story. The hook here is built on an absolutely healthy mistrust of insurance companies and for-profit businesses that claim to have our best interests at heart, but there’s a sharper version of this film to be made that really lands those punches.
Much has been written about how Soderbergh shot the film on an iPhone, and that’s impressive. It’s not like he was the only one on the set and he was doing everything by himself, though. There’s something a little willfully misleading about the press focus on that aspect of the filmmaking. “Peter Andrews,” the accomplished cinematographer that he is, manages to squeeze a surprising amount of visual firepower out of the pocket-sized device, shooting in 4K, and the film has a grimy, unclean palette. If the point of the press is simply to show filmmakers that they have this tool at their disposal? Great. But you still need a real support team and you still need to know how to use that tool, and the results Soderbergh gets here are not the same results everyone who picks up an iPhone is likely to achieve.
Besides the camera he shot it with, I was looking at the language Soderbergh’s using here, and he does a good job of creating this free-floating, ongoing sense of anxiety. Most horror filmmakers can’t manage that to the extent he does here, so it’s doubly frustrating when the film doesn’t figure out what to do with that anxiety. There’s a read on this that is all about the way it feels to be a woman navigating any modern social landscape as you deal with toxic men and their impact, and that’s probably the most engaging way to read it. At least there, some of this feels like it has some teeth. I still think the granddaddy for that kind of film is Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45, which made me want to crawl out of my skin the first time I saw it, and which only gets better each time I revisit it. There’s nothing about Unsane that lingers, and I get the feeling that’s the main thing Soderbergh wants the film to do.
Still, it’s good to see Soderbergh “only” make an average film. He’s such a smart filmmaker, and so in command of his craft, that it can almost be discouraging. However, even a smart guy like Soderbergh can make the cardinal mistake of thinking that he’s smarter than the genre or the first person to work in the genre, and perhaps that’s why Unsane feels a little like a “horror film” for people who don’t like horror films, the kind of movie where “psychological thriller” is less of a descriptor than an excuse for why it’s not particularly scary. Unsane is familiar, and that’s deadly when you’re making something designed to keep an audience off-balance and upset.
Running time: 98 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic