Clocking in at a tight 98 minutes, “Unsane” is a lean, economic genre entry from director Steven Soderbergh – one of the masters of such things – and its unnerving visual style is a result of the picture being shot on an iPhone with a crazy aspect ratio. At times, the picture feels claustrophobic, as it tightens the frame on protagonist Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), who is held against her will at a mental institution where she believes that her former stalker is employed. This style is fitting for a film about a person who is essentially trapped.
As the film opens, Sawyer is a rising star at a financial institution somewhere in Pennsylvania, living far away from her home in Boston and everyone whom she knows, including her doting mother (Amy Irving). We learn early on that Sawyer’s move was the result of her having to get a restraining order against a stalker named David (Joshua Leonard), a man who became obsessed with her after she took pity on him while reading to his ailing father during some sort of community volunteering at a hospital.
But Sawyer also suffers from some form of depression. Early in the film, she visits a medical center and speaks with a shrink who seems sympathetic, but the scenario quickly becomes sinister as Sawyer is told to strip and undergo a variety of tests. Upon being asked by the shrink whether she ever considered suicide, she noted that she had given some thought as to how to pull it off successfully, but never intended an attempt. However, she soon finds herself committed for the night – and then for another seven days.
A fellow patient named Nate (Jay Pharoah), one of the few sympathetic figures in the hospital, tells Sawyer that the hospital regularly forces people to stay against their will and then milks their insurance company for money. Once that runs out – after seven days – patients are allowed to leave. To make matters worse, Sawyer begins to believe that David has a job at the hospital, although the film goes to some lengths to make the viewer wonder if her stalker’s presence is a figment of her imagination.
One of the elements that makes “Unsane” interesting is that Sawyer is far from perfect. At times, in fact, she is outright unlikable, which is witnessed during one scene in which she dresses down an underling at her job because power suits her and another in which she essentially sacrifices another character’s well-being to save herself.
“Unsane” is also unsettlingly timely in how it portrays how women who are victims are not listened to or written off. At nearly every turn, Sawyer’s fate is determined by the whims of the men around her. Near the film’s beginning, her leering boss mentions an upcoming conference and not-so-subtly suggests that they share a room. The doctor at the facility where she is held barely listens to her when she pleads with him to let her go, and spends much of their sessions looking at incoming messages on his cell phone. Sawyer is forced to rely on Nate, who believes and attempts to help her, and borrow the cell phone that he has smuggled into the facility. And, of course, there is David – a monster who drugs her and torments her in the hope that he can convince her to have feelings for him.
Yes, the setup is slightly preposterous – that David could get a job at the hospital where Sawyer is being held. Regardless, it makes for an intense thriller and there is a particularly powerful scene in which Sawyer – being held in a padded blue room – verbally rips into her stalker and makes him feel as small as she actually sees him.
Soderbergh vacillates between high budget studio films, medium range indie dramas and, on occasion, low budget items such as this one (or “Bubble”). “Unsane” might not be one of Soderbergh’s best films – its ending wraps everything up a little too neatly – but it’s a great case of how a solid genre entry can be made for scraps, especially when you have such talent – Soderbergh and Foy, who is great here – on board.