Unsane preys upon two fears of the modern age. One fear is our oppressive health care system. The other fear is a stalker, which is unfortunately relatable to many potential audience members. There are moments of Unsane that capture what those fears encompass, but too much of the film indulges in experimental filmmaking to let it scare you.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) sees a therapist to help deal with recurring fears she’s having after escaping a stalker. The therapist tricks her into signing papers to commit herself as a patient, and Sawyer’s erratic reactions only extend her stay.
I feel like I’ve seen this B movie before. One was called Committed and starred Scanners’ Jennifer O’Neill. A perfectly reasonable woman innocently seeks help from a corrupt institution that then doesn’t believe anything she’s saying because she’s a patient.
Unsane theorizes that there is a whole psychiatric industrial complex that manipulatively commits patients and keeps them there as long as their insurance companies will pay for treatment. I call bullshit on this. We all have health insurance and have to fight them just to cover legitimate, necessary procedures. I’m supposed to believe they’re going to pay for weeks of in-patient treatment as a psychiatric facility? Mine is fighting my doctor to get out of covering a generic that costs $14 for me to just pay out of pocket.
The film begins by making us think maybe Sawyer is compromised. She is seeing things that aren’t there and attacking staff as a reaction. But then they just drop the ambiguity and confirm yes, it’s a trick and she’s just got to survive and escape the evil hospital.
A major distraction is the technological experiment of Soderbergh’s latest. He filmed the whole movie on an iPhone 7 but it looks more like he shot it with GoPros. Every single shot has that weird fisheye angle. We all take videos with our iPhones and they look normal. What the hell lens did Soderbergh put on that thing to make it look worse?
Sawyer suspects one of the orderlies is her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard). Again the film plays with ambiguity before just committing to yeah, her stalker got a job in the hospital. That does escalate her vulnerability. She already can’t trust the doctors and now her greatest threat has their ear. It’s just a lot to ask after Unsane is already putting forth this elaborate health insurance conspiracy theory.
The performances are good. Foy is ferocious at both her most unstable and her most manipulative. Leonard is frightening with his realistic portrayal of stalker behavior. Jay Pharoah plays an undercover reporter trying to expose the insurance game. He’s the only stability in there, but it might have been more interesting if we weren’t sure Sawyer could trust him.
There are aspects of Unsane that could be triggering to people with panic and anxiety conditions. The shakycam of Sawyer’s drug-fueled episodes is troubling on a visceral level, but the subtleties of the life you live when trying to avoid a stalker is even more disturbing. It stops just short of indicting society for punishing the woman for coping with the PTSD of a stalker.
The scariest thing to me is all the doctors and administration who recite scripted talking points to Sawyer. Our society does this and it’s intractable. Those scenes give the viewer the anxiety of being stuck somewhere with people who can’t be reasoned with, and makes us want to escape. Then it leans fully into creepy behavior, torture and murder.
There are plenty of reasons to fear our actual health care system and hospitals. Unsane concocts too much that distracts from legitimate fears. If you want to shoot on an iPhone, fine. Use better lenses, but get your script right. That shouldn’t matter whether you’re shooting on an iPhone or 70mm, just figure out your script first!