Tuesday 4 February 2020

Movie Review: Unsane (2018)

A suspense drama, Unsane is an intimate psychological thriller with horror elements cleverly exploiting the fatigue of an over-stressed mind.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is alone in a new city, holding down a bank data analyst job but still traumatized by her experience of having been stalked for the previous two years. She checks in with a psychiatrist at the Highland Creek mental wellness institution and inadvertently signs papers admitting herself for 24 hours. Unable to leave, Sawyer lashes out, but her acts of rebellion only prolong her stay to seven days.

Things gets much worse when she encounters her stalker David (Joshua Leonard) working at the facility as an attendant under an assumed name, although she cannot be sure what is real. She also meets fellow patients Violet (Juno Temple) and Nate (Jay Pharoah). Occasionally drugged, frequently restrained and feeling threatened by David, Sawyer uses Nate's smuggled cell phone to call her mother Angela (Amy Irving) for help. But freeing herself from the clutches of both David and the profit-driven institution will not be easy.

A study of paranoia either real and perceived, Unsane playfully prolongs the question of whether Sawyer is experiencing actual or brain-manufactured traumas. Director Steven Soderbergh experiments by shooting the film entirely on an iPhone7 Plus and in a blocky 1.56:1 aspect ratio. With a miniscule production budget of $1.5 million, Unsane is a surprisingly potent drama penetrating Sawyer's tormented mind and the business of bogus treatments fueled by insurance money.

The tight focus on Sawyer and her mental condition is effective. Soderbergh literally and physically closes the walls of the world around her and confines the movie to the institute once she is admitted. She is in a surreal world where all the patients are sure they don't belong, and at least some of them are probably right. As for Sawyer's compounded nightmare of finding her stalker operating in her new prison, the story depends either on her delusions, a relatively wild coincidence, or layers of conspiracy too dense to contemplate.

In addition to the struggle of mental patients to find advocates, Soderbergh pursues the evils of a private health system run amok, placing profit ahead of patients while hiding behind oily corporatespeak and well-rehearsed sales pitches. None of which helps Sawyer get better before, during or after her stay at Highland Creek. She needs rescuing, as does the system pretending to treat her.

The entire film rests on Claire Foy's shoulders, and she delivers a delectable performance of knowing vulnerability laced with sarcastic determination. Joshua Leonard is suitably creepy as her stalker.

Unsane's final act rushes towards more stock horror elements as nuance is left behind, violence is unleashed and the blood flows. Whatever Sawyer's specific condition, the world around her is unhinged and likely to remain so.

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