Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a financial analyst, moves from Boston to Philadelphia in an attempt to flee her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard). Still suffering panic attacks and paranoia, she seeks professional help, and finds herself involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where the nurses and administrators drug her and attempt to keep her interned as long as her insurance will pay out. In her fear and confusion, Sawyer believes David has followed her to Philadelphia and is working in the very institution she is being held captive. But is it really happening or is it all a delusion?
Unsane is Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone project, in which he acts as director, cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and editor (under the pseudonym Mary Anne Bernard). The film is supposedly an experiment in technological advancement, an innovative leap forward into the future of low-tech cinematography, and avid film-makers may enjoy this about the film. However, for the average cinemagoer, the film-cum-arthouse experiment is probably not going to satisfy, due to Soderbergh’s attention being focused on the filming itself, and less on what’s being filmed. The use of the iPhone does work in the way that it produces the feeling of constant surveillance, highlighting the intrusion of social media and technology into our lives, and the added vulnerabilities this creates for women in particular. The film gets away with a few moments of very clunky editing under the guise of ‘maybe it’s meant to be like that’. The film has already garnered a lot of attention under the banner of ‘the iPhone film’, so audiences are likely to spend a lot of screen time actively thinking ‘Wow, this was shot on an iPhone’, instead of paying attention to the film itself. But then again, the film is more about technique than substance.
What starts off as a nuanced and delicate look at harassment and intimidation, quickly devolves into an unexpectedly violent B-grade slasher flick, with a couple of gasp-worthy twists. The film crams a lot into a relatively short time frame, and as a result fails to develop characters that the audience can really empathise with or relate to. Again, it should be noted that this characterisation, or lack thereof, is a result of Soderbergh using a simple idea to play with technique. Unsane is peppered with clumsy exposition, strange plot structure propelled at breakneck speed, and lots of deep plot holes (what kind of facility has a co-ed dorm room of free-roaming mentally ill patients?). This is a film that leaves you wondering whether it was Soderbergh’s intention to have you questioning what was real, or whether the confusion is the result of some lazy writing. Because of Soderbergh’s intense focus on technique, a lot of the film falls back on cliché’ in character and dialogue. If anything, this film is an indictment of the holes in the US legal system regarding involuntary commitment, identity theft, harassment and police competency. Foy is very convincing in the role of Sawyer, and the subtle shifts in power relations between her and David, in one scene in particular, are intriguing to watch. However, the film doesn’t do justice to the seriousness and complexity of mental illness.
Even though Unsane was filmed before the Weinstein scandal, it’s been judged retrospectively as an attempt to jump on the #MeToo bandwagon. If it gets one thing right, it’s that it captures the fear many women live with on a daily basis, not just victims of explicit forms of stalking, but also in the personal surveillance that women maintain constantly for their own safety. It also highlights the banality of evil and oppressive patriarchal ideals in the character of David, and the problematic male fantasy of the angelic Sawyer that David holds, which is often brushed off as harmless romanticisation. The film works to highlight the limited power women often have in these situations, and how their ‘sweetness’ and passivity is often the only means for survival. However, as other reviewers have noted, the film quickly devolves into a perverse sexualised ideal of stalking by the final scenes. The constant mystery surrounding what is real and what is Sawyer’s delusions, ultimately work to discredit the protagonist’s paranoia, falling into the trap of invalidating a woman’s claims, while professing the importance of these claims.
Technical experimentation aside, Unsane runs like a film about women’s fear written by men. Are women’s fears only justified when their stalker turns out to be a murderous sociopath? Clearly, the only solution to threats of sexual and physical violence is to throw another mentally-ill woman under the bus to save yourself, or simply for cinematic effect. Me thinks not.
I rate this film 5/10.