Steven Soderbergh took a $1.5 milllion budget (which could pay for roughly 40 seconds of a Marvel blockbuster), his iPhone 7, and made himself an outstanding psychological thriller. That alone is an achievement, but so is Claire Foy’s performance as the sole protagonist.
She plays Sawyer, a woman who is struggling with depression after being chased out of her own city by a stalker. She schedules a session with a therapist, and no sooner has she signed her insurance form than she discovers she’s been conned into committing herself into psychiatric care. The premise is immediately terrifying: you know there’s nothing you can to disprove that you’re crazy that won’t make you look crazier instead. Resistance is validation, and compliance is acquiescence.
What follows is a tense, fraught ordeal in which Sawyer tries to get out of her involuntary commitment without losing her sanity to the very people who claim to want to preserve it. Any self-defense is seen as rebellion and accompanied by punishments, restraints, and medication, all of which serve only to aggravate the situation. She starts to see her stalker in one of the orderlies, but how damaged is her judgement by then? Countless horrors are visited upon the poor Sawyer as routine, and what’s most harrowing is that she mostly does and says all the right things, but gets nowhere anyway. You get the idea that this system is a machine that is grinding along all of its own, and there’s nothing you can do to change its course.
Shooting Unsane on a phone does not really feel like a gimmick, as it’s not a found footage film or anything like that, but the lack of depth of field contributes to a very deliberate atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety. It makes you feel like you’re trapped in the ward like one more patient.
The succession of torture and inhumanity does go on too long, especially because this side of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest we’ve all seen the asylum tropes of lining up to take pills, unstable patients, forced sedation… There were several times when I felt like the movie was veering into sadism, but then it swerved to offer a glimmer of hope, a promise of retribution, that it would then take away again.
Claire Foy is a force of nature in this film, as she’s front and center in virtually every scene. I was impressed by the sheer amount of work it must have taken, to shoulder an entire project like that, pretty much being its only face, and having to cover a range of emotions that start out at vulnerability and keep descending into anger and fear. The grim story is tolerable because she inhabits Sawyer with such life that I wanted to see her make it through. I just wish the road were a little bit easier.