Unsane

UNSANE. Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Amy Irving, and Juno Temple. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong themes and violence). 98 min.

This American psychological horror film tells the story of a woman who is confined to a mental institution after she complains of being pursued by a stalker.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) moves from Boston to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to begin a job in a new environment, hoping to escape a man she thinks has been stalking her for two years. She goes for counselling help, and tells her therapist that sometimes she has contemplated suicide. Without full knowledge of what she is doing, she signs a document that commits her to spend 24 hours in a hospital’s psychiatric ward. After an aggressive exchange with a fellow patient, Violet (Juno Temple), and a hospital orderly, her time in the ward is extended, and the Police won’t intervene because she has signed a document agreeing to be admitted. Sawyer thinks she simply  agreed to having more sessions with her therapist.

It is not long before Sawyer discovers that one of the orderlies, David Strine (Joshua Leonard) in the psychiatric ward is actually her stalker. David applied to the hospital for work just to be near her, and Sawyer’s behaviour in protest is misinterpreted by the hospital staff as evidence of her increasing instability. Sawyer subsequently learns from a drug addict in hospital, Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), whom she befriends, that the hospital is engaged in fraudulently extorting money from insurance companies. David jealously sees the contact between Sawyer and Nate, and kills Nate with a drug overdose, after torturing him.

While in solitary confinement for bad behaviour, Sawyer is visited by David, and she tries to control him by entering into his fantasies. David suggests that he run away with Sawyer to share a life together in his cabin in New Hampshire, and horror events flow freely. Sawyer eventually wakes up in David’s car, that is also carrying the corpse of her mother, Angela (Amy Irving) - Sawyer happened to contact her mother by cell phone to tell her what has happened, and her mother paid the price. Sawyer escapes from the car, and runs through the forest to escape; she survives by stabbing David in the eye with her mother’s crucifix, and cutting his throat.

This is a shallow, vacuous horror movie that wades clumsily into thriller territory, and throws plot coherence and plausibility to the wind. Steven Soderbergh, who directs the film has been associated with some very good films, such as “Solaris” (2002), and “Contagion”(2011), but this is not one of his best. Sawyer is presented as a possible victim of an insurance scam, and is misdiagnosed as deluded and suffering from extreme paranoia. The movie builds up its tension by  communicating biased preconceptions of what mental illness means, and it shows an attempted rape scene where the degree of violence is especially disturbing. After drug doping, torture, horror killing, and attempted rape, the film suggests in its final scenes that Sawyer might in fact be delusional, but by that stage the damage to plausibility is done. Technique-wise, the film is shot entirely on an I-phone, but the technique shows its problems as the movie progresses. The I-phone photography gives a creepy edge to scenes and blurs the differences between what is real and what is imaginary by providing some unusual angle shots, but it is ill equipped to handle what happens when there is poor lighting. Plot-wise, the film examines a range of complex issues, such as the rights of the mentally ill, the need for awareness of what treatment is actually used, and patients’ fear of particular treatments, like solitary confinement. But the horror aspects of the movie’s genre intrude enough to distract one from carefully considering any of them.

The two things that stand out in this movie are Soderbergh’s willingness to try new techniques of photography within the horror genre, and the emotional intensity of Claire Foy’s performance as Sawyer. Soderbergh’s I-phone technique is novel, but produces too many images in agitated fashion to work well; and Claire Foy’s energetic acting holds definite promise for a better movie. This movie is psychiatric Grand Guignol, Soderbergh style, and it is bluntly scripted and poorly executed. 

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

20th. Century Fox

Released April 26th., 2018


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