Review | Unsane | 2018

The idea of a protagonist questioning their own sanity is nothing new. Going all the way back to Robert Wiene's 1920 horror landmark, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to Hitchcock's Vertigo, to more contemporary fare like The Forgotten and Flightplan, film history is filled with characters who may or may not be insane.

Unsane, the latest film from the no-longer-retired filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (his second after emerging from retirement last year with Logan Lucky), isn't even the first time he's touched on such a topic, mining similar territory in 2013's Side Effects. Unsane, however, takes things in a completely different direction, in that in answers the question of its protagonist's sanity pretty early on. Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a young woman fleeing from an obsessive ex-boyfriend. After starting a new job in a new city, she continually suffers from flashbacks, seemingly seeing his face everywhere, in strangers on the sidewalk, in new lovers in the bedroom, he's a specter from which she cannot escape.

After confiding in her therapist that she has contemplated suicide in the past, she unwittingly signs paperwork voluntarily committing herself in a mental hospital. Unable to convince anyone that there has been a terrible mistake, her increasing panic only serves to convince everyone that she is, in fact, insane. But when she starts seeing her stalker in the form a hospital nurse, not only does she convince everyone that she is losing her mind, she begins to wonder the same thing herself.

Soderbergh doesn't belabor the point, but I won't reveal Sawyer's state of mind here. Suffice it to say that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and Soderbergh spins his tale of creeping insanity with a blistering critique of corporate medicine. Sawyer is trapped in a Kafka-esque hell where her insistence that she is not crazy only reinforces the opinions of those who believe otherwise; and yet she begins to uncover an insurance scam that allows the hospital to commit patients against their will until their insurance stops paying for their stay.

Shot entirely on an iPhone, Unsane has a ragged, shot-on-the-fly feeling (Soderbergh completed filming in only 10 days), adding to its fevered emulation of Sawyer's fragile, quickly unravelling mental state. The grainy digital images and often uncomfortable close-ups distort the frame in such a way that it makes us question what we're watching. The film overplays its hand somewhat as it turns into something resembling a slasher film in the climax, but Soderbergh sets everything up so well that the violent payoff seems earned and even cathartic. By the time the film ends, the audience feels just as trapped inside the walls of the hospital as Sawyer, and when all hell finally breaks loose, it all comes together in a supremely satisfying way.

Unsane is a work of nerve-shredding tension that keeps us guessing without insulting our intelligence. It's a wickedly clever genre exercise that adds enough twists to a familiar story to keep us guessing, and in typical Soderbergh fashion, subtly upends its own formulaic conventions in surprising and thrilling ways.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

UNSANE | Directed by Steven Soderbergh | Stars Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharaoh, Juno Temple, Matt Damon | Rated R for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references | Now playing in theaters everywhere.


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