Unsane opens with a scene between Sawyer, a smart, hardworking young banker, and her married boss, who suggests they attend an industry conference together.
Sawyer (The Crown‘s Claire Foy) demurs, and exits hastily, but politely.
Was that a come on?
Was it inappropriate?
And if it were, and she complained, who’d believe her?
Unsane director Steven Soderbergh (who threatened to retire a while ago but still seems to be making movies) takes the #MeToo era and runs with it, all the way to “nuthouse” (the movie’s term, not mine).
Sawyer turns out to have a history of problematic relationships with men, leading to chronic stress and depression. When she consults a therapist, she’s asked to sign a few “boilerplate” papers, which actually grant permission for irrevocable short-term “observation” at a mental-health facility.
These early scenes play as mordantly funny — the bureaucratic staff react with practiced indifference but firm inflexibility when Sawyer belatedly grasps her situation and protests.
Foy is quite good in this role, and in these early scenes. She shows us, in the space of a few minutes, several different versions of Sawyer. First a frightened victim, then the composed executive who uses her business school chops and marketing skills in a bid to talk her way out, then a woman capable of absolute animal ferocity.
A tidy little preview of what’s to come, as Sawyer tries to convince patients (Jay Pharoah) and institution personnel (including her pencil-pushing staff psychiatrist) that she is sane. As her stay lengthens, Sawyer realizes there is someone else who must be convinced of her sanity: herself.
The viewer is also on the fence. Sawyer’s mental-health issues stem in part from having been stalked, and under the influence of various drugs she starts to see the perpetrator (Joshua Leonard) walking the corridors of the hospital.
This thread of Unsane evolves into a thriller, rather violent and silly, but so well-acted by Foy that it remains consistently engaging. The movie also takes a sardonic, sidelong look at the problems that arise when the main motive for health-care providers is the profit motive.
Incidentally, if there is anything worse than our current health-care system, it’s a movie shot on an iPhone, as this one purports to be. Its shabby, washed-out digital colors and constricted framing induce claustrophobia long before Sawyer reaches solitary confinement. Still, the fish-eye function does convey a feeling of surveillance, and is consistent with the movie’s themes of predation and paranoia.
Not a glamorous setting for an actress, but I don’t think Foy minds. She gives Sawyer a winning tenacity and aces a scene that finds her character using psych ops against a tormentor, reversing their power dynamic in what plays like a timely Time’s Up manifesto.
It would have been a nice place for Unsane to end. The movie plods on, though, stepping over bodies as it delivers what seem like several alternate DVD endings.
The good news is Foy is in all of them.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. With Claire Foy, Jay Pharoah, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Juno Temple, and Amy Mullins. Distributed by Bleecker Street.
Run time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence)
- Playing at: Area theaters