To live in this world as a woman is to be constantly on edge. Afraid of who might be lurking around the corner, at the end of the street, on the train, in the parking lot. A sequence in Steven Soderbergh’s raw, uncompromising Unsane finds the protagonist, Sawyer, getting a lesson from a safety consultant about how to protect herself from a stalker.
The saddest thing about this particular moment is that it rings desperately, painfully true.
In fact, most women (myself included) will recognise his suggestions as things they already do as a matter of course, without even really thinking about it. The premise of Soderbergh’s film is, naturally, heightened. Sawyer’s is a horrifying situation most of us will hopefully never have to contend with. But that doesn’t make her struggle any easier to stomach, or any harder to relate to.
The Crown‘s Claire Foy plays Sawyer with a controlled elegance, a steely desire to keep moving forward, her eyes shark-like in her determination, whether she’s desperately trying to convince someone of her sanity or lying to her mother about how well she’s doing. When Sawyer unintentionally commits herself to a mental healthy facility, she is initially, foolishly, confident about how easily the mistake will be rectified.
Unsane is a frenetically-paced, wildly affecting film. Shot on an iPhone to give it a guerrilla quality, Soderbergh keeps the focus tight on Sawyer, twisting the lens to create an off-kilter, fish-eye quality that further tests the limits of his protagonist’s sanity. If she can’t even see straight, how are we supposed to believe what she’s seeing is real?
Soderbergh lets us know early on whether Sawyer is nuts, but the revelation doesn’t take away from the movie’s central preoccupation with a woman screaming at the top of her lungs for help being ignored by virtually everybody around her. It’s fitting, given the current #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, that even when Sawyer is being helped, as with the aforementioned safety advisor, the onus is still on her to do a better job.
Sawyer is told to delete her Facebook, watch out for tagged photos, and to generally uproot her life in order to get her stalker off her tail. The implication is that she’s somehow to blame for being victimised by this man, as though she’s slipped up by posing for photos with her friends or, as flashbacks flesh out, by volunteering at the home where her stalker’s father was living.
There’s much to admire about Unsane, whether it’s the film’s unflinchingly cynical view of the American mental health system which, by this evidence, exploits vulnerable patience for a profit, the tightly-held frame, which exploits the claustrophobia of the institution as though the walls or actually closing in, or the tense, near hopeless atmosphere.
Every performer is operating at the top of their game, from Foy’s desperate Sawyer, to Leonard’s unhinged stalker and Juno Temple’s loopy inmate. Leonard is a standout as the stalker, also playing the role of the nurse assistant Sawyer suspect.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Stephen Soderbergh
Writer(s): Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Stars: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Amy Irving
Release date: March 23, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Extension 765
Length: 98 minutes