Steven Soderbergh (probably best known for directing Erin Brockovich and the good, bad, and ugly that is, respectively, Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13) departs somewhat from his usual smart-talking slickness in his newest venture Unsane. While there are still hints of his characteristically sharp dialogue, the setting and horror context seem to require a slower, more measured pace, which might actually be one of the movie’s biggest flaws.
Unsane is a sort-of-psychological-horror thriller(ish) about Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), who’s settling into a new life in a new city, when she is admitted against her will into a local medical institution. Despite some rather stilted “aren’t I such a normal person” acting, the early film is generally the strongest, as it seems like it’s aiming for a direct comment on both the American health care system, and our understanding of mental health in general. There are multiple slow, creeping shots in which Sawyer is lead into the hospital, the audience drawn into the confusion along with her; every instance of her asking for help is met with some variant of “you’re upset, take these,” before being handed a pill cup.
This sense of overbearing dread is reinforced by the hospital staff’s constant rationalisations for keeping her within the building (her punching an orderly due to the stress of being ostensibly kidnapped is used as a further excuse to keep her locked up, etc).
The main plot, which is slightly diluted by a underwhelming sub-plot, focuses on David Strine, a man obsessed with Sawyer who was stalking her relentlessly back in Boston before the film starts, has changed his name to George Shaw and got himself a job within the hospital. It’s at this point, rather than aiming for a pretty direct metaphor for the Catch-22 of US health care, that the movie seems to want to shift more concretely into the psychological horror genre, where Sawyer’s reliability is drawn into question for the audience, as she herself states “I don’t know if it’s all in my head.” Is ‘George’ really who he says he is? Is she just crazy?
The film, however, gives us no reason to question her, and provides us with multiple bits of evidence (very early on) that ‘George’ is who she says he is. Gradually, the plot becomes more and more about David’s attempts to keep her stuck in the hospital and convince her to start a family with him, to the extent where the larger health care metaphor is all but forgotten about. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the stalker narrative’s presentation is just not as engaging as where it looked like the film was initially heading. The film also has a problem in that David is simply not creepy enough a character, and any sense of menace is kind of undermined by the whole movie being shot on iPhones, much of it in close-up, which tends to give every actor a kind of disproportioned ‘bobblehead’ look.
All in all, Unsane, in trying to do so much plot-wise, doesn’t really manage to do much of anything. It’s not scary enough to be scary, and it’s not clever enough to leave you thinking once it ends. I left liking the film’s premise, but wishing it had chosen between trashy, ‘slasher’ horror, or smart, psychological terror, and actually stuck with it through to the end.