Quick warning – there’s a general air of spoilery-ness at the very end so if you want to watch Unsane blind, and it’s worth doing that, come back and read this afterwards!
What can you do if the more you try to convince the world that you are perfectly fine, the more that is seen as evidence of your insanity?
Going forward I’ll certainly read all small print, even the Apple term and conditions I seem to get with every iPhone upgrade (there’s probably a line in there where I positively request a battery life of 35 minutes).
Sawyer (Claire Foy) has recently moved to Pennsylvania from Boston, to escape a stalker who’s been shadowing her for two years. She’s forthright at work, and extremely able, but an appointment with a therapist affiliated to a mental health facility results in her being tricked into signing her own committal documentation.
It’s a scam they run because most insurers will pay for seven days’ treatment without question, a scam that relies on mentally gaslighting men and women and giving them unnecessary drugs.
For Sawyer her terror is ratcheted up when she becomes convinced that new auxiliary George Shaw (Joshua Leonard) is actually her stalker David Strine, though her pummelled brain makes it hard to work out what’s real and what isn’t.
Foy has portrayed both Queen Elizabeth II and Anne Boleyn, and there’s certainly an old style regality about her character here too – five hundred years ago I can imagine her shouting “off with his head!” if some poor minion did something stupid.
Taut but also frighteningly unpredictable, Foy’s performance holds the film together, as Sawyer tries every tactic to manoeuvre her way out of the place she’s been boxed into.
There’s an enjoyment of her loud, physical rage at patients and staff; if she’s being told she’s crazy why stay within the acceptable limits of perceived normality? Women are often told they’re not normal when they step outside typical feminine boundaries of behaviour so in a weird way incarceration gives her some freedom.
Her anger is aimed at the hospital, and at society which made her change so much of her life to avoid her stalker. Fellow patient Nate (Jay Pharoah, a rock in this disconcerting storm), explaining the system to her, says their treatment isn’t personal. He favours waiting out the next few days, but she also learns from Violet (Juno Temple) who keeps a homemade knife under her top.
This is a film where phones loom large even when rarely seen. Steven Soderbergh filmed it on iPhones, and it’s fascinating how he uses them and what he says about them.
Out and about early in the film, there’s often an unknown man in the background, like in a million people’s selfies; initially we too are never sure if it’s him, even though at that stage we don’t know who “him” is.
In the mental health facility phones are the only way to reach the outside world. Nate lets Sawyer use his to call her mother, in return for a jokingly-offered blowjob he knows he’ll never get. Earlier she used up her one official call to the cops – who regularly get calls from inpatients saying it’s all been a terrible mistake – and then had her own cell phone privileges removed for one of the many infractions of the rules.
The hospital is dark and disorienting, with echoing, shadowy corridors that seem to go on for ever. The lack of light makes it hard at first for us and Sawyer to know if the uncomfortably quiet, bearded George is David or whether she’s so traumatised she’s seeing him everywhere.
Smartphones can be barriers but they can also allow in trojan horses. For most of its running time this is a movie about the personal meeting the impersonal, the sane coming up against madness, reality against fiction, function versus the ephemeral, protection against vulnerability; and how they all start to intermingle until the boundaries are entirely blurred and nothing is as it seems.
But it’s also a film that doesn’t talk much sense, as other people including Sawyer’s mum (Amy Irving) do have smartphones and she could have googled Shaw and Strine to confirm her daughter’s stalker had turned up with someone else’s identity.
Sawyer is an interesting character. She’s stripped bare – clothes are as plain and functional as her actions (by contrast her mother favours floaty outfits and floral hair accessories).
Her comments to the therapist about the effects of stalking on your life, and how such changes become commonplace, are chilling, as is the flashback to the visit from a security specialist on how to make herself safer inside and outside her apartment. Lots of women will watch and be taking notes, because it’s hard to ever escape those fears, as Sawyer discovers.
There’s a key scene where she’s trying to break David by mocking him but we don’t know if he’s going to cry or or attack her; and it reminded me of that saying that men fear women will laugh at them, while women fear men will kill them, and how these can be happening in the same interaction.
Leonard is excellent as one of those chillingly pathetic men who still has immense power over women, however believable they are to begin with, because ultimately telling people what is happening makes them look unbelievable.
The last act takes Unsane into thriller territory and though at times it’s still overpoweringly claustrophobic, the general feel is of a more traditional movie. It’s a rather creaky changeover.
Ultimately I didn’t feel carried along by this switchover. And overall it’s quickly obvious to us and to Sawyer that it is David (though people’s lack of belief when she tries to tell them is still frighteningly believable). Far more terrifying are her flashback experiences with David as he went from silent presence to obsessed stalker.
When it comes to mobile phone-related stings in the tale it’s usually just an unexpectedly hefty data bill; here we find out that the two sides of the question Unsane poses – has Sawyer lost her mind or is her stalker really there – can both be true.
Watch the Unsane trailer now: