Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Unsane’ Paints a Terrifying Picture of a Broken Mental Health Care System
Claire Foy, the British actress best known for playing young Queen Elizabeth II on the hit Netflix series “The Crown,” sheds her jewels and other royal accoutrements to play a strung-out American women in Steven Soderbergh’s psychological thriller “Unsane.” Foy plays Sawyer, who is first introduced as an ordinary thirty-something woman living in Pennsylvania. She works a thankless job at which she must dodge advances from her skeevy older boss (Marc Kudisch). It’s no wonder that she heads to a local bar after a long day to blow off steam, picking up a guy (Colin Woodell). It isn’t until she takes her suitor back to her place that we see that something is off. In the middle of a sexual encounter that she initiated, Sawyer suddenly freaks out, and it only gets crazier from there. Shot entirely on an iPhone, the film has a voyueristic quality, and dim, unflattering lighting and odd camera angles serve to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. This is quite appropriate for a cautionary tale that tackles two timely issues – mental health and women’s safety.
Following her date gone bad, Sawyer seeks out counseling, heading first to a support group for victims of stalking. She next has a private session with therapist (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and her frankness lands her in some hot water after she confesses to having thought about killing herself. Tricked into signing a consent form, she is informed that she is being “voluntarily” committed for 24 hours. Instead of just riding it out, Sawyer puts up a fight, even going as far as to call the police, which proves to be futile, since the hospital has that all-so-important signature. Her stay is extended to seven days after she assaults an orderly known as George (Joshua Leonard). Sawyer is convinced that George is actually David, her stalker who drove her out of Boston. Those around her don’t take Sawyer’s claims seriously – She is in a mental institution, after all. And the viewer has a hard time believing her as well, considering the earlier incident with the gentleman caller. She gets her mother (Amy Irving) involved, and it’s best not to get into too much detail about what happens after this point, but suffice to say Soderbergh is far from easy on Sawyer; with every lurid twist and turn she journeys further down a nightmarish path. That’s not to say that Sawyer is helpless, she’s far from it. Foy is brilliant here as Sawyer desperately clings to her wits.
“Unsane” differs from other mental hospital movies such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Girl, Interrupted” in that it isn’t an ensemble film. The focus may be on Sawyer, but we do get to know two of her fellow patients, Violet (Juno Temple), who definitely belongs there, and Nate (Jay Pharoah), a recovering addict, who probably doesn’t. Temple is terrifying as the unstable Violet, a shiv-carrying young woman with a Southern accent who is constantly in Sawyer’s face. Sawyer becomes fast friends with Nate, not only because he has a smuggled cell phone, but also because he is, by all appearances, the only other relatively sane person in the joint. Pharoah, who is best known for his stint on “Saturday Night Live” during which he impersonated President Obama, takes his career to the next level here in this pivotal role. It is Nate who informs his new friend about the supposed insurance scam perpetrated by the mental hospital. Again, Soderbergh does a great job here of keeping the viewer guessing. Is there any validity behind Nate’s claims, or are they merely the product of a paranoid man? Eventually the truth is revealed in the worst way.
Just as “Flightplan” negatively portrayed flight attendants, “Unsane” doesn’t do mental health professionals any favors; not one of them here is shown in a sympathetic light. With mental health being a part of the national conversation following the recent string of mass shootings, Soderbergh gives the movie-going public a lot to digest here.
But what Soderbergh and Foy do best here is bring to life the horrors that come along with merely being a woman in society. With no encouragement on her part, a horrifying stalker makes Sawyer’s existence unbearable. Perhaps the most chilling scene in “Unsane” is a flashback in which Matt Damon pops up as a specialist of sorts coaching Sawyer on how to “stalker-proof” her life. In a monotone voice, he rattles off a laundry list of things she must do in order to ensure she isn’t murdered, minor inconveniences like deleting all her social media accounts and selling her car. With the recent Time’s Up and#MeTo movements, we have seen some improvements in making things safer for victims of abuse, but we still have ways to go in eliminating gaslighting and taking stalking seriously. Why is the depressed stalking victim considered more of a danger to herself than the man who made her that way by putting her in a virtual prison? This is just one of the questions the viewer is left with long after the credits have rolled.
“Unsane” opens March 23 in theaters nationwide.