D: Steven Soderbergh / 97m
Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irving, Polly McKie, Gibson Frazier, Aimee Mullins, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Sarah Stiles
In Steven Soderbergh’s first stab at directing a horror movie, Sawyer Valentini (Foy) is a smart businesswoman making a fresh start for herself in a new town and with a new job. The reason for the fresh start is David Strine (Leonard), the man who stalked her for two years before she managed to get a court to issue a restraining order. But Sawyer begins to see him in various places – not directly, but out of the corner of her eye, or at a distance. Troubled by this and seeking a sympathetic ear, Sawyer attends a facility that purports to help victims of stalkers. But instead of helping her, the staff at the facility mislead her into voluntarily committing herself for twenty-four hours. When she realises this, Sawyer’s agitation leads her to strike an orderly; this results in her stay being extended to seven days. Things go from bad to worse when one of the night orderlies turns out to be Strine, masquerading as “George Shaw”. With the help of a fellow patient, Nate (Pharoah), Sawyer gets word to her mother (Irving), but with the facility legally in the right, she must rely on her wits to see out the seven days, and to stay away from Strine…
While watching Unsane it’s worth remembering that as a director, Steven Soderbergh has an eclectic, and distinctly personal approach to his projects. Touted as his first attempt at horror, the movie is actually a psychological thriller laced with horror elements, but even with that caveat, it’s clear from very early on that Soderbergh isn’t really interested in making a horror movie. Instead, Soderbergh – working from a script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer – appears to be more interested in making a feminist statement, one that supports the idea that women, even now, with the MeToo movement and all, still aren’t being listened to. Instead, the movie is saying, women have to be resourceful and work things out for themselves. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as a theme or a message, but as Sawyer is initially presented as a strong, more than competent businesswoman, the idea that she could be tricked into committing herself into a mental health institution – that she wouldn’t check the small print, as it were – strains credulity from the start.
There is much else that is problematical, from Strine popping up on Day Two (how does he know Sawyer is going to be committed, or that she’ll have her stay extended?), to the intransigence of the facility’s staff, and the uninspired laziness of the local police force (which seems to consist almost entirely of two patrol car officers). At least the script doesn’t belabour the whole is-it-or-isn’t-it-all-in-her-head approach, choosing instead to come down firmly on one side of the fence quite soon after Sawyer’s confinement. This allows the movie to switch from being a woman in peril movie to a woman still in peril but resilient enough to win through in the end movie. Foy is very good indeed as Sawyer, determined and tough even when she’s feeling vulnerable, while Leonard is the epitome of creepiness as Strine, his teddy bear countenance belying his twisted mindset. But while the script is saved in part by the quality of the performances, it’s Soderbergh who saves it the most, his visual approach to the material energising certain scenes and providing an unsettling mise-en-scène in others. There are moments where Sawyer’s sense of isolation is highlighted by having the background stretching away unnaturally behind her, and it’s these kinds of moments that are the most effective. But when all is said and done, this is still just another generic thriller, with too many plot holes, and too many occasions where the phrase, “Oh, come on!” seems entirely appropriate.
Rating: 5/10 – more of an exercise in style and visual representation – Sawyer having a psychotropic break is brilliantly realised – Unsane is a movie that, on the surface, appears to have more depth to it than it actually has; standard fare then, and emboldened in places by Soderbergh’s mercurial direction, but not the edge-of-your-seat thriller that it so obviously wants to be.