Real terror comes from the things that you actually believe…even when they are more than a little ridiculous.
Steeped in a cold reality of current social issues like #MeToo and stories of sexual harassment finally being shared across all walks of life, Unsane much like any horror movie plays on a simple gimmick but it is one that is executed with such unwavering precision that you can’t help but be glued to the edge of your seat.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is just trying to start a new life, but much like anyone out there, sometimes you just need someone to talk to and seeks out a local clinic to find a counselor to talk through her issues with. However, things don’t go as planned, as she is involuntarily committed to a mental institution after merely mentioning the idea of suicide to her therapist in what seems like an obvious insurance scam. Unhappy and obviously on edge, things go from bad to worse as her time in this hospital is now forcing her to confront her biggest fear; the man who’s been stalking her for years. But the question is; is this her worst nightmare or has she actually had the breakdown that everyone is telling her that she’s had?
I will be the first to admit that this is an unequivocally ridiculous premise…but seriously what horror film doesn’t have one? With Unsane director Steven Soderbergh, who shot this all on an iPhone, gives us something that wildly flies in the face of any and all preconceived conventions and challenges that status quo in horror by channelling into the truly irrational vain of emotion that history has shown in the case of so many victims of sexual assault and improprieties that are finally coming to light…aren’t actually that irrational after all.
A movie like this will only ever really work if everyone involved really buys into the concept and leans into the material. Soderbergh, who is easily a master storyteller on a good day, uses the iPhone shooting gimmick to its full advantage, allowing for extreme close-ups and unflattering lighting to really accentuate the tension and the overall mood of the film.
This is not a ‘pretty’ film…and it certainly isn’t supposed to be. Soderbergh makes a horror film that almost flies in the face of the entire genre itself as he takes this low budget/high schlock concept and actually turns into a genuine piece of auteur filmmaking. He makes his direction of the story downright claustrophobic and this story of a woman constantly getting beaten down by the world around all the more cathartic when our hero finally snaps and gets a little revenge for herself. The script from writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer is dripping with such clunky subtext that only a storyteller like Soderbergh could have made this as effective as it really was, simply by leaning into it all with the fervor of a man possessed. He knew exactly what kind of movie his was making and so did his star Claire Foy.
We’ve really never seen Foy like this before. She’s unhinged, totally compelling yet not all that likable at the exact same time. She truly captures the manic edge of a woman in the worst place possible where no one believes a single word that is coming out of her mouth. It’ll never get the attention it deserves but it’s a great performance that totally sells the tone of the film.
It’s almost fitting that Joshua Leonard, who broke into the business in the iconic VHS found footage horror film The Blair Witch Project, came on board to give this all a twisted sense of symmetry. He’s carved out a solid acting career for himself over the years and leans into the warped and obsessed stalker role with ease while Juno Temple can play unhinged with the best of them and Jay Pharaoh provides not only a little comic relief but some straight man grounding in the material throughout the narrative.
Unsane won’t be an easy one for some people, as it’s the kind of film that is actively made to be as divisive as it can possible be, but if you find yourself willing to buy into the entire experience, filled with absurdity and uncomfortable laughs for all, you’ll also get to experience what a truly terrifying ride it actually is.