Unsane (2018)

US / 98 minutes / color / Extension 765, New Regency, Regency, Bleecker Street, Fingerprint Dir: Steven Soderbergh Pr: Joseph Malloch Scr: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer Cine: Peter Andrews (i.e., Steven Soderbergh) Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving, Polly McKie, Matt Damon, Sarah Stiles, Gibson Frazier, Roshanna Jenkins, Myra Lucretia Taylor.

Claire Foy as Sawyer.

A neat little psychological thriller based on a premise that could have come straight out of a classic-era film noir: that patients in a psychiatric hospital are powerless in the eyes of the law (and, besides, who believes their claims to be sane?), and that ruthless operators could use this fact to create a highly profitable business. There’s also the obvious subtext: here in the US the insurance companies have us over a barrel, and we have very few weapons with which to fight back.

Sawyer Valentini (Foy) fled from Boston to Pennsylvania to get away from an aggressive stalker, David Strine. Now she’s a promising up-and-comer at the bank which employs her. But she’s still haunted by her experiences of being stalked, and tends to “see” David in crowds and cafés.

So she takes herself along to the nearby Highland Creek Behavioral Center in search of a support group, sees a counselor (Taylor), signs a document she’s assured is merely a bureaucratic formality, and discovers she’s committed herself for overnight observation.

Of course, the more she protests, the more she’s told her behavior indicates she’s a “potential danger to herself and others”; now, rather than facing an overnight stay, she’s slated for at least a week’s incarceration.

The only person who seems to understand what’s going on is patient Nate Hoffman (Pharoah). Nate explains that the business model of the group of which Highland Creek’s a part is to trick people into committing themselves, then hold them until their insurance company refuses to stump up any longer, at which point they’re declared “cured” and thrown out. Obviously this is a nightmare for the sane, like Sawyer; it’s even worse, if you think about it, for those genuinely in need of psychiatric care.

But there’s an even deeper horror facing Sawyer. One of the medical orderlies is none other than David Strine, her stalker back in Boston days.

Joshua Leonard as George Shaw/David Strine.

Only now he’s calling himself George Shaw, and professes never to have heard the name David Strine.

Is it just a matter of Sawyer’s tendency to mistake perfectly innocent bystanders for the man who destroyed her security, or could this really be Strine?

A lot of movies would have been content to play with our perceptions for much of the rest of the running time, tantalizing us with uncertainty as to Sawyer’s sanity, but Soderbergh is playing a cannier game. He reveals to us pretty soon that, yes, “George Shaw” is David Strine, so that the problem addressed by the movie becomes this:

How can Sawyer escape from the clutches of someone who has well-nigh absolute power over her, and who has her trapped in confinement, when no one believes her plight exists?

Jay Pharoah as Nate.

Claire Foy delivers her usual splendid turn; it’s hardly a surprise she’s so busy these days (this was just one of three major screen roles for her in 2018), and Joshua Leonard is excellent as the whiny psycho. It was a delight, too, to watch Amy Irving in action as Sawyer’s mom, Angela. Juno Temple plays a genuinely unstable fellow-patient, Violet, who takes an immediate dislike to Sawyer. Polly McKie is ideal as the stolid Nurse Boles, while Matt Damon has a bit part as Detective Ferguson of the Boston PD, whose grim advice to Sawyer on everything she must do to fend off her stalker was a large part of the reason she fled the city. Gibson Frazier is unsettlingly convincing as Dr. Hawthorne, the resident psychiatrist who somehow can never devote his full attention to what Sawyer’s trying to tell him.

Amy Irving as Angela.

But perhaps the standout for me was Jay Pharoah as the amiable Nate, the guy who befriends Sawyer and shows her the ropes. We realize almost immediately that Nate isn’t any ordinary patient, that he’s there for a purpose (and it’s not hard to guess the purpose, again one straight out of classic-era film noir), and so indeed it much later proves to be—in fact, it’s because of Nate that the whole Highland Creek edifice will eventually come tumbling down. Pharoah gives a nicely layered performance, convincing as both the easy-going patient who’s there to recover from his opioid addiction and the undercover investigative reporter he actually is. (For those who might seek to leave a pedantic comment below, the actor’s screen name really is Pharoah, not Pharaoh. I double-checked. Honest.)

Soderbergh did the camerawork himself, under a pseudonym, and as you’d expect it’s extremely skilled; interestingly, he shot the movie in its entirety on an iPhone 7 Plus. The lighting and palette are also worth a mention; they’re very reminiscent of the glory years of the Hammer House of Horror, say, or American–International, with lots of primary colors and sharp edges. The movie’s aspect ratio, at 1.56:1, is again reminiscent—I assume consciously—of that era.

Juno Temple as Violet.

Where Unsane falls down a bit is in its plotting. (Again, just possibly, this is in homage to the old Hammer/A–I movies.) Consider for example Strine’s presence as an orderly in the institution. How did this come about? We know he’s been violating his restraining order to spy on Sawyer, so it’s fair enough he could have learned she’d made an appointment there. It’s a far greater stretch to imagine he could somehow have learned she’d be dragged in for an overnight stay. But, when we first meet him as “George Shaw,” there’s no sense that he took up his employment a matter of mere hours before. Moreover, Strine is somehow supposed to have known that the real George Shaw—presumably at the time a complete stranger to him—had been given an offer of employment at the Highland Creek Center, then to have bumped him off (this isn’t a spoiler: it’s obvious as you watch the movie) and mustered sufficient ID to persuade the existing staff he was Shaw. All this in at most a day or two! And wouldn’t whoever interviewed the real George Shaw for the job have recognized the imposture immediately?

Come to think of it, wouldn’t George Shaw’s mom or someone phone him up to ask how he was getting along in his new gig?

Matt Damon as Detective Ferguson.

There are other bits of iffy plotting, but that one struck me as very nearly disqualifying all the rest of the movie. And yet there’s so much else that’s good about Unsane that somehow, at least for me, it got away with it.

The first I learned about this movie was from a Guardian article about 2018 movies that had been largely overlooked and deserved more attention; it had certainly slipped under my personal radar. Now I’ve seen it I’d agree with the Guardian author: Unsane is decidedly worth a look.

5 thoughts on “Unsane (2018)

  1. I skipped this at the cinema after hearing mixed reviews, but your thoughtful write-up is causing me to reconsider. Plus, Claire Foy is always good value. Okay, I’m going to add it the DVD rental list (assuming it’s available).

    Am I right in saying this was shot on an i-phone? I think I read that somewhere when the film came out…

    • You’re absolutely right: an iPhone 7 Plus. I should have mentioned that, and will slot the info in. Many thanks for pointing that out!

      I’d say the movie’s definitely worth a watch, although the artificiality of parts of the plotting may be a deterrent for some.

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