I finished this film, a psychological horror-thriller about a woman who is accidentally/involuntary committed to a mental institution, with the word “abrasive” on my mind. It applies to many different aspects of the film. Most significantly its iPhone cinematography which perfectly renders a panoply of soulless environments; from a bone clean business park, a cheap motel, and the film’s meat and potatoes, a mental institution, in an icy cold aesthetic. The few times that the film travels beyond these man-made milieus, the lay of the land, is even stranger. Like the forest at night on which the film opens. If, somehow, the desperate bit of voiceover is not enough to knock you off kilter, what’s on screen should do the job. A maze of shadowy trees bathed in an eerie blue light, letting us know right off the bat that if the people that populate this world are walking out of step, the ground on which they tread is not helping matters either.
The people that populated this world are cast in a similar light, made flesh using the unflinchingly harsh consistency of high definition digital (exacerbated by the lens being frequently close enough to capture every detail of every paranoid glance and blank, administrative stare). Nearly all the one-on-one encounters undertaken by the film’s beleaguered protagonist are centred around the placement of the camera, set up low down and occasionally in between both parties so their bodies appear misshapen, or through an oddly timed series of extreme closeups, accentuating the awkward silence that pervades any conversation where one party desperately wants something and the other is blandly unforthcoming. It is a visual sense that is matched by an inventively minimal soundtrack, in which a jazzy and cheesy Law And Order-esque score is pulled apart in increments. Reduced to a series of alien bleeps and bloops, interrupted by long stretches of silence and the occasional aural attack.
Abrasive also applies to protagonist, Sawyer, played by Claire Foy. Or maybe “normal” is the better descriptor. We are introduced to her working as a business consultant, an unglamorous and even cutthroat profession, with a personality that is unfriendly, short-fused, and more than a little stuck up. Easily understandable when it is revealed that her current situation, living in an unfamiliar city miles from friends and family, stems her from an attempt to outrun the after effects of a traumatic experience with a stalker. Unlike some less than successful depictions of survivors of abuse, no matter what form that may take, Unsane’s portrayal is not one where it is simply a question of overcoming trauma and putting the past to bed. Rather, in this film it is a series of trials and tribulations, digestible and linear, that culminates in triumph.
Foy as Sawyer is past this supposed end point, but yet is not on the mend. Instead, she is withdrawn and seemingly unable to get her life back on track. For like most women who have gone through similar experiences, any outside assurance has been snatched away and she is left with the diminished ability to get things back on track, with a neglectful, patriarchal society unable to help. The film expertly portrays this through a flashback featuring a cameo from Matt Damon. Damon plays a security guy who instead of advising Sawyer in ways she can bolster herself or actively seek recrimination, merely officiously lists how she to dismantle her life and retreat.
This constant spectre of feeling unsafe (maybe that’s where the title comes from), which blooms once a visit to a therapist and an entanglement with bureaucracy leads to her involuntary committal, is perfectly embodied in Claire Foy. She’s often defiant and even aggressive, especially during her first couple of nights, yet her body language is almost always signalling that she is at her breaking point or simply breaking. A range of tension and twitches which she never overplays yet manages to express in tandem with the film’s oppressively hysterical tone.
Her performance, a mix of seriousness in tone and theme along with an exaggerated quality, is a good microcosm of the film overall. Despite its engagement with misogyny and sexual harassment, themes which are present within a realist aesthetic, it possesses a strong, b-movie quality in both its comic book storytelling and secondary characters. That it cribs an entire subplot from 1963’s Shock Corridor is a tell-tale sign of its own self-awareness as a piece of pulp. For that film’s director, Samuel Fuller, started off in the one two punch of tabloid journalism which he subsequently brought into his moviemaking. While Unsane’s director, the ever prolific and varied Steven Soderbergh, is perhaps better known for the Ocean’s movies and knows how to inject that slightly madcap, caper sensibility into his darker and more experimental offerings.
Some may find this approach unsuitable for so serious a subject matter, especially in the film’s third act where it largely ditches thriller for horror and ups the ante in terms of provocation. But it never seemed too out of order for this author (except when it is meant to be), thanks to the dual anchor of Claire Foy’s performance, leaping from vitriol to vulnerability and back again with next to no whiplash, and Soderbergh’s hyper competent and inventive filmmaking, which interprets a screenplay that in lesser hands could have been a very ordinary psychological thriller or a more socially aware film that wears its genre trappings and discomfort with some discomfort. Unsane knows that the latter can be the breeding ground for both thought and fun.
Director: Steven Soderbergh.
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, and Juno Temple.