Sawyer knows she’s not crazy. In Unsane, she’s a young woman who’s recently moved from Boston to Pennsylvania, working an office job she doesn’t much like and enduring not-so-subtle sexual come-ons from her creepy boss who really thinks they ought to spend more time together. When she FaceTimes with her mother during her lunch break, she tries to put a positive spin on everything: Yes, I’m fine, I’m doing well, how are you? But even before she goes on a date that evening, taking the guy home but then having some sort of emotional breakdown before they can sleep together, there are signs that all is not well with her. Very soon, things will get much worse.
The new film from Steven Soderbergh—like his previous two, the kinky thriller Side Effects and the Southern-fried crime comedy Logan Lucky—is a capital-G genre flick, happily luxuriating in its own pulpy proclivities. But it’s also his strongest in a while, in part because its deceptively dashed-off tone is tied to a stronger thematic hook than he’s allowed in a while. And Unsane is guided by an expertly measured performance from Claire Foy as Sawyer, a woman who very much refuses to be pegged as hysterical, no matter how much the world wants to slap that straitjacket on her.
Shot on an iPhone 7 Plus and supplemented by drone cameras, this psychological thriller brandishes its slightly warped, fisheye-lensed aesthetic, plunging the viewer into a queasy, disorienting mindset from the start. (Soderbergh, who as per norm did his own cinematography, amplifies the sensation by placing the camera at uncomfortably high or low angles, as if we’re prying into intimate, uncomfortable moments we shouldn’t be seeing.) But Unsane is most upsetting for what it does to Sawyer.
After speaking with a therapist about the lingering emotional trauma that she’s carried with her from Boston—a needy, possibly unhinged man named David (Joshua Leonard) began stalking her, precipitating her departure—she finds herself being held against her will in a mental institution. (Apparently, she signed the wrong form, granting the facility permission to keep her under observation for 24 hours.) Sawyer insists it’s a misunderstanding—she’s not crazy—which only inspires nightmarishly blasé reactions from the clinic’s staff: Sure, right, you’re not crazy. Tell us another one.
Unsane plays on one of society’s most basic fears—being locked away and being disbelieved when we swear there’s been a mistake—and Soderbergh and screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer heighten the anxiety by having Sawyer discover that her stalker is one of the facility’s nurses. But it couldn’t be him, right? He’s back in Boston. There’s no way he could know where she is, is there? Could David somehow be behind all this? Or is she, in fact, insane?
Soderbergh’s films have always exuded an icy remove, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t care about his characters or that he feels that his job is to be sure we care deeply about them. But not unlike another of his so-called “experimental” films, 2009’s micro-budget The Girlfriend Experience, Unsane wields its chilliness and unconventional aesthetic to amplify the stakes and make a larger point about the blunt cruelty and crushing soullessness of modern life. Sawyer is trapped in a hellish dilemma that Soderbergh exploits for maximum suspense, but the lurid B-movie pleasures are in service of saying something despairing about how women are marginalized, disbelieved, pushed to their breaking point and treated like they’re crazy.
Because this is Soderbergh, though, there’s nothing sanctimonious in these thematic explorations. In his recent films before and after his supposed retirement, he’s grown increasingly cheeky, sometimes seemingly treating his movies as fanciful doodles he’s doing for his own amusement. That glibness sometimes risks disrupting Unsane’s emotional undercurrent—the movie’s occasionally snarky nonchalance can feel manipulative rather than gripping—but on the whole it helps keep the film from turning into a self-righteous finger wag trying to score cheap, albeit meaningful points in the #MeToo era.
It also helps that Foy is so casually commanding in the role. The star of The Crown plays Sawyer with refreshing lightness. In the film’s early stretches, even as the character is slowly realizing that she’s trapped in this clinic, the Emmy-nominated actress refuses to make Sawyer a frenzied ball of nerves. There’s a tough levelheadedness about Sawyer that, presumably, has been born out of her need to tolerate the obnoxious, condescending and aggressive behavior of the men around her. Sawyer’s in trouble in Unsane, but she never seems helpless—the movie’s black-hearted joke is that, really, she’s always been dealing with guys who are trying to metaphorically imprison her. There’s a weary, sarcastic cackle to the performance that practically spits in the eye of any patronizing damsel-in-distress concerns the audience might have.
The movie teases us with the is-she-or-isn’t-she? question of her mental stability, and without revealing anything, let is be said that Soderbergh lands on an answer that’s both satisfying and speaks to his broader themes. And he’s populated Unsane with a strong supporting cast that’s just off-kilter enough that we keep wondering who can be trusted. Amy Irving is Sawyer’s wonderfully sympathetic mother—so sympathetic that maybe she’s hiding something? Jay Pharoah and Juno Temple play colorful fellow patients in the ward, their true motivations always a bit mysterious.
And Leonard delivers a performance that’s exceptional in its pathetic ineffectualness. Whether or not David is all in Sawyer’s head, he roams the hallways of the clinic with an odious, obsequious beta-male vibe. Even if he’s not a threat to her safety, he’s the sort of guy who makes women’s lives miserable, badgering them with his suffocating niceness that probably hides a self-centered agenda. Not all of Unsane’s twists and gambits work—you have to accept a certain amount of movie-movie ludicrousness to get on the film’s loopy wavelength—but Soderbergh’s vision of a smart woman eternally held down against her will has a wonderful, nasty kick to it. Sawyer insists she’s not crazy, but that might not matter if the world has already decided she is.
Writers: Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.