Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irving, Gibson Frazier, Polly McKie, Sarah Stiles, Myra Lucretia Taylor
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references)
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 3/23/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 22, 2018
Unsane begins as a Kafkaesque nightmare revolving around the notion of confirmation bias resulting in terrifying consequences. The premise, at first, involves a woman who is institutionalized in a mental health facility against her will but, legally, with her consent. Here's a good legal lesson for a society that has evolved to click the box marked "I agree" without reading the lengthy contract that goes along with it. If you're handed a piece of paper by someone in authority and asked for your autograph at the bottom, read the terms to which you're agreeing before you sign.
This fairly obvious thing doesn't occur to Sawyer Valentini's (Claire Foy) when she's handed a document to sign. She has had a stressful start at her new job, where her boss seems a little too eager to have her accompany him to a conference. Sawyer has recently moved from Boston to Pennsylvania, leaving behind her career, her friends, and her family in a desperate attempt to escape the threat of a stalker.
Her psychological state at the moment she's handed those papers to sign isn't helped by the fact that she's convinced she saw the man in her office. This has become the terrible routine of her life—every day being convinced of seeing the face of the man who made her life hell for two years.
Sawyer needs help. She knows it, and she wants it. She arrives at the facility to speak to a therapist, who seems pleasant and helpful enough. The talk goes to next steps in her recovery, and that's when Sawyer is handed the papers. Convinced that this is normal, she signs them, joking about the content of the form without reading it. After all, if she's going to be "normal" again, she should be able to do something as routine as signing a document without making a big deal of it.
The paper, as it turns out, is for Sawyer's voluntary commitment to the facility for a 24-hour period. The wheels of medical bureaucracy are in motion the moment she raises the pen from the page. There's no convincing the orderlies, the nurses, the doctor in charge, or even the police that she doesn't want to be there—that she didn't actually agree to be institutionalized because she didn't know that's what she was signing.
In the minds of all those other people, she agreed. Because the agreement implies that she has mental health issues, everything Sawyer says and does only serves to confirm that she is, in the popular parlance, "crazy."
It's a hell of a premise that Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer's screenplay offers, and director Steven Soderbergh takes it to even more claustrophobic lengths. The entire movie was shot on a smartphone (with the director once again serving as his own cinematographer and editor under aliases), and there's an intentionally confined and noticeably distorted look to every frame. Soderbergh embraces the limitations of his digital source as a means to keep us off-balance, to highlight the constant uncertainty of what's real and what might not be, and to give a sense of a system that's distorted.
At first, the plot involves Sawyer's attempts to be released from the facility—calling the police, enlisting the aid of her mother (played by Amy Irving), befriending a fellow patient named Nate (Jay Pharoah), who has a cellphone and an understanding of the corrupt practices of the company that owns the place. Inherent to the story is a scathing critique of the American health care system, which encourages profit over actual care. The company's scam is to commit people who don't necessarily need it, keeping them institutionalized as long as legally allowed or until the insurance company stops paying for it.
This is logical enough, but things begin to fall apart when the screenplay introduces another, more vital conflict. It's the appearance of an orderly who looks exactly like David (Joshua Leonard), the man who had been stalking Sawyer. It's a loaded scenario, because either Sawyer is genuinely in need of more help than even she would acknowledge or this is actually her stalker. The first option calls the falsely-institutionalized setup into question, and the second option opens an assortment of seemingly unanswerable questions about the stalker's methods for ending up in this place.
To its credit, the movie doesn't care so much about the particulars as it does the effect on Sawyer. There's a lot here about trauma and the ways in which victims are further victimized by the systems meant to help them. In addition to the story itself, there's a flashback in which a police detective, played by an uncredited Soderbergh regular, goes through all of the ways that Sawyer should change her life, just to avoid being targeted by an unhinged man—as if it will be her fault if David does anything to her.
Ultimately, the underlying concerns of Unsane are far more engrossing than the story's ways of touching upon them. By the third act, the movie descends into even more nightmarish territory, although it does so with the artifice of a fairly typical thriller, involving a psychotic and seemingly unstoppable killer. There's a feeling that the filmmakers are exploiting the very trauma they adeptly explored until that point, and it doesn't help that the final note is one of cruel and cynical hopelessness.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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