Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriters: Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer
Myra Lucretia Taylor
Runtime: 98 mins.
Australian release date: 25 April 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 20 April 2018.
Hard on the heels of last year’s Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Unsane, is an experiment in the use of filming a movie using an iPhone, a feat which has paid off, stylistically at least. It’s not the first time this has been done, of course; Sean Baker did it in 2015 when he made the ground-breaking Tangerine. Here though, rather than showing life on the streets like Baker did, Soderbergh has succeeded in creating a thriller with a claustrophobic, interior atmosphere that suits the psychological institution the action takes place in and the mindset of the film’s protagonist.
Sawyer Valentini (The Crown’s Claire Foy) is a businesswoman with a problem. Without telling her mother, she has relocated from Boston to Pennsylvania and taken a new job to avoid a stalker who has made her life a misery. When she seeks help from a counsellor (Myra Lucretia Taylor) at a large mental hospital she is made to sign a document which gives the institution the right to place her under 24 hour observation, against her wishes, because the counsellor has determined she has suicidal tendencies. Sawyer is understandably confused and becomes more so when she discovers that her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), is employed as a nurse in the clinic… or is he? How could he be? The nurse says his name is George Shaw and the hospital backs him up. Is she suffering from a delusion? She is placed in a mixed-gender ward, surrounded by patients with varying degrees of mental illness; one in particular, Violet (Juno Temple), is immediately aggressive and intimidating towards her. Her only solace is a male inmate, Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), who’s fighting an addiction to opioids and has a hidden cell phone which Claire uses to contact her mother, Angela (Amy Irving). When mum arrives, determined to have her daughter released, she is convinced by the hospital administrator, who goes by the most inapt name of Ashley Brighterhouse (Aimee Mullins), that Sawyer is in safe hands and will be released in a few days. But is she safe or is she locked inside a secure unit with a madman? Or is it all in her head?
Unsane has its moments but there are a couple of plot holes that detract from the screenplay’s overall success. Nevertheless, it’s genuinely creepy in parts. Foy’s performance is visceral as she battles not only her own demons but the very institution that has placed her in such a precarious position. Of the script, the multi-talented director has said, “I’ve also always been on the lookout for stories with female leads that allow for the exploration of why things are much more difficult for them. With a male lead, the stakes in our movie would not be as high and the level of vulnerability would be lower. In the culture that we occupy, the weight given to something a woman says is different than that given to something a man says - which plays into the central idea of Unsane.” Supporting roles are all solid and keep an eye out for a brief appearance by an uncredited Matt Damon as a helpful detective. As is his wont, Soderbergh has also shot (as Peter Andrews) and edited (as Mary Ann Bernard) his film. In the final analysis, it’s a pretty mind-bending scenario and you’d think it an implausible one but the director has said, “as a genre story rooted in the real world, and in something that’s possible, the chances of this happening to you are quite plausible.” And that’s really scary!