VOD film review: Unsane
James R | On 20, Jan 2019
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard
Claire Foy is one of the brightest British stars working today. You just have to see her work in The Crown – not to mention her scene-stealing turn in First Man – to appreciate the amount of clout she can bring to even the most stoic of characters. Free from the confidences of royalty, she takes on confines of another kind altogether in this lean, mean thriller from Steven Soderbergh, which sees her play an inmate in a mental health institute.
Sawyer, when we meet her, is on a date with a guy and looking for a hook-up. When that triggers memories of a stalker, though, she heads for therapy, only to find herself unwittingly signing consent to be kept behind closed doors, until they decide she’s no longer a threat to herself. It’s no spoiler to say that decision doesn’t happen overnight, and so we watch, as she spirals into frustration and fear – at the fact that she’s now locked up here, and at the possibility that she might not get out again.
Steven Soderbergh shoots all this on an iPhone, an idea that sounds like a gimmick, but actually winds up being suited to the whole endeavour; he’s able to get in close, uncomfortably so, as we witness Sawyer unravel, every new extreme of worry and stress simultaneously reinforcing and undermining her sanity. It’s in-your-face, grubby and borderline voyeuristic – “Think of your phone as your enemy,” one safety expert tellingly advises Sawyer, after she files a restraining order against her stalker – but in way that fits Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script, rather than detracts from it.
Foy, needless to say, is masterful, managing to be composed and frayed in the face of Soderbergh’s unflinching proximity. When she freaks out that one of the orderlies (a believably creepy Joshua Leonard) may or may not be the man from her past, we want to agree with her, even as we recall the similarly unreliable landscape of pharmaceuticals that made Soderbergh’s Side Effects such a shifting, gripping, twisting thriller.
While Soderbergh is aiming for something more scuzzy than surprising, though, Unsane doesn’t cross the line into cruel exploitation, and there’s never a whiff of hysteria or dismissal to the movie’s treatment of its hero; one suggestion of a conspiracy from insurance companies is touted, crucially, by another figure, while Soderbergh seems to be having most fun when satirising the Kafkaesque structure that the medical industry has installed to keep patients in place. What unfolds is a battle by a woman to reclaim control and be listened to in a system designed to be against her, something that Soderbergh’s narrowly framed visuals echo with a claustrophobic immediacy. If the final act doesn’t quite escape from its own genre trappings, though, Unsane remains a blast of something strikingly different from a filmmaker who’s rarely been on such experimental and diverse form. As a medical thriller, it can be a bit of a struggle to swallow. As a showcase for Claire Foy, there’s more than enough sugar to help the medicine go down.