Film Review – Unsane
In Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Unsane, Sawyer Valentini is a young, bright woman on an upward swing as a bank analyst in a new city. Her job is “to interpret data to produce analytical results,” and she is soon recognized for her work. Soon, however, we see the cracks appear, not just in her life, but in the systems within which she must live which expand outward like ripples from a pebble dropped in a pond: nowhere is she free from predation, from her apartment to her workplace, to the city where she fled to escape, to the institutions which commodify security, to society which place the burden of believability squarely on her shoulders.
Co-writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer have crafted Unsane as Misery inverted and spliced with A Cure for Wellness, as Sawyer (played with nail-biting intensity by Claire Foy) is slowly immobilized by systems designed to subjugate or silence her, which profit from turmoil and deception. Her boss expresses his pleasure at her work but then propositions her to attend a conference with him, minus the conference. She politely refuses. Her mother frets over her moving 450 miles away from Boston to Philadelphia, but Sawyer seems to prefer the solitude and a chance to start over. Anonymity also extends towards her dating life, as she meets a random Tinder date at a trendy bar and takes him home, only to suffer a severe panic attack once the lights go out and retreat to the bathroom until her date leaves in confusion. Determined to push past her anxieties, Sawyer seeks counseling to talk through her issues, only to be “voluntarily committed” to a treatment center for twenty-four hours, which turns into a much longer stay. As ubiquitous as the warning may be, it is still unheeded: read the fine print before you sign anything.
“I love it when you wear blue,” purrs the narrator of the opening scene in a shadowy, wooded area, admitting he “never knew what being alive was” until he met the object of his affection. From then on, Soderbergh’s camera steadily chips away at Sawyer’s agency, gazing down at or across from her from an advantageous position, often placing her off to the side or bottom of the shot with glass walls or doors rounding the frame, trapping her in a fishbowl to be studied or admired. The frequent closeups of her face when speaking to the therapists or orderlies are uncomfortably tight, heightening the anxieties she desperately wants to shed. Soon, we learn the reason she left Boston, which she didn’t even tell her mother, Angela (Amy Irving): she had a stalker named David (Joshua Leonard) who disturbed her foundation so thoroughly as to remove that core of safety and trust in others. Not only that, but getting others to believe her is a Sisyphean effort.
To make matters worse, David is not only a predator in Sawyer’s life, but symbolic of an entire system designed to place the burden of proof on the victim while also capitalizing on their fear and wellbeing. In 2018, just watching the constant shushing and condescension of Sawyer’s pleas to be heard or talked to instead of talked at is cringeworthy, especially as the employees of the treatment center are more focused on managerial efficiency over patient care. The more she protests, the more she is treated as insubordinate and resistant to treatment – that is, progress.
Even a frenzied flashback of a security expert, played by Matt Damon, mirrors Sawyer’s work behavior from the darker side of the looking glass, presenting her with the vulnerabilities in her apartment and daily routines as if they were a gift of illumination.
At times the film is a darkly comedic glimpse into the treatment of the mentally ill, including Juno Temple as Sawyer’s vicious and crude bunkmate, Violet, and Jay Pharaoh as Nate, the only patient sympathetic to her argument. Nate is almost more disconcerting than Violet as he seems too kind to be trusted in a place like that – Sawyer even cringes and shrinks away when he first sits next to her on a couch. Her job was to break things apart to be studied, but she isn’t sure she wants the same done to her, and the last time it happened, she had to flee for her own safety.
The longer she remains captive at the center, trapped by her own rebellious behavior and efforts to fight back, the more the line blurs between whether she really is delusional. Suddenly, David appears. Or does he? Maybe the shadows are just shadows; maybe the center doesn’t have nefarious, ulterior motives. As her “treatment” continues, I was reminded of the children’s novel Holes by Louis Sachar, in which the inmates of the detention center dug holes to build character and contrition towards a dubious redemption. Sawyer dutifully digs hole after hole towards her own redemption, even as it becomes evident that freedom may be just beyond her reach.
It is when Sawyer resorts to mirroring the cruelty done to her that the film disrupts our sympathies and faith towards her character. In order to survive, she has to walk in the dark with her predators, and that may push her beyond rebuilding that foundation for which she yearns.