Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Steven Soderberg
Stars: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Juno Temple, Jay Pharoah, Amy Irving, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Polly McKie, Gibson Frazier, Aimee Mullins, Matt Damon.
A couple of years ago Sawyer Valentini (played by Claire Foy, from tv’s The Crown, etc) moved from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape a stalker. She works as an insurance analyst and seems settled in her new city. But she soon believes that her stalker has followed her.
She seeks psychological help with a counselor at a facility called Highland Centre to deal with her fears, but she finds herself inadvertently committed to a 24-hour stay in a psychiatric hospital instead. Then she encounters mild-mannered psychiatric worker George (Joshua Leonard, from Hump Day, etc) whom she believes is actually David, her stalker, and she hits him. Things deteriorate from there as Sawyer is considered unstable and a danger to herself and others.
Fellow inmate Nate (Jay Pharoah, from Ride Along, etc) tries to calm her by suggesting that her situation is an insurance scam and that she will be released after a week. Meanwhile she also has a run-in with another inmate in the aggressive Violet (Juno Temple).
While the medical staff question her sanity, and we are also left to ponder whether Sawyer is paranoid, which adds to the tension. Sawyer’s only contact with the outside world is with her mother (Amy Irving), who tries to intervene. But Sawyer finds herself trapped in a living nightmare from which there seems to be little hope for escape.
Director Steven Soderberg’s second post-retirement film, after last year’s comic heist offering Logan Lucky, Unsane is a disturbing tale of medical malpractice, madness and murder that is almost Hitchcock-like in its atmosphere.
Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (better known for comedy films like The Spy Next Door, etc), Unsane contains elements of the 1975 classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and the 1999 drama Girl, Interrupted, but this is a raw, lean and engrossing psychological thriller. The pair supposedly wrote the taut script in ten days. The film also seems to be critical of the corrupt American health insurance system driven by greed, a bureaucracy gone mad, and the way in which sane people can be unscrupulously deprived of their freedom. Unsane serves up some neat twists that keeps the audience off guard and we don’t always know where the film is headed. This is Soderberg’s first foray into the horror/thriller genre, and he effectively shapes an unsettling and claustrophobic experience, and delivers some well-timed shocks as well.
This low budget film was shot inside an abandoned hospital, which gives the locations an authenticity. Often one to take creative risks, Soderberg (working under his usual pseudonym of Peter Andrews) has shot the film entirely using an I-phone 7 Plus camera, which gives the material a suitably grainy visual look and an almost voyeuristic quality that suits the nightmarish material. A couple of scenes set in a forest are shot mainly in a blueish palette that gives the material a chilly, cold look and feel. I-phone technology has come a long way in the couple of years since Sean Baker shot his gritty drama Tangerine on a mobile phone.
Foy brings a palpable sense of frustration, anger and fear to her intense and emotionally demanding and raw performance here. She is left battered both physically and emotionally. Leonard has a creepy and ominous presence as the predatory David. An uncredited Matt Damon contributes a brief cameo as a detective who advises Sawyer on how to protect herself and her home from the stalker.