Steven Soderbergh’s latest film “Unsane” deals with one hell of nightmarish circumstance which will surely make you wince at times for good reasons. What if you are suddenly committed to a mental hospital? What if you continue to get stuck there with no quick way out? And what if you are the only one who can see a serious possibility of danger coming onto you? Although this is a familiar thriller premise, the movie gradually grips our attention as steadily accumulating tension on the screen, and we come to fear for what may eventually happen to its increasingly desperate heroine.
After the ominous opening scene, we meet Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a young woman who has been hiding her big personal problem from others around her. She has been stalked by a guy whom she happened to meet while working at a hospice, and she recently moved to a new place and got a new job shortly after petitioning for the restraining order on him, but she still struggles with how much she was harassed by him. At one point, she sees him passing by her workplace, but she is not so sure about whether that is real or not. When she later meets a guy for a quick sex, the mood is initially casual and pleasant, but then she cannot help but think of her stalker, and she has no choice but to reject the guy in the end.
Frustrated with her constant fear and agitation, Sawyer eventually goes to a mental hospital for getting some psychiatric help. During her private time with a counselor, she lets out what has been tormenting her for a long time, and the counselor seems to be willing to help her as much as possible. At the end of their counseling time, Sawyer is asked to sign her name on some release documents for her prompt therapy, and she does not mind that at all as hoping for getting better as soon as possible.
However, she soon comes to realize that she made a huge mistake. Not long after signing those release documents, she is suddenly taken to somewhere inside the hospital building, and then she finds herself confined within the hospital along with other patients. Flabbergasted and outraged by this abrupt change, she tries to get out of the building, but even the police cannot help her as she already gave up her rights through signing those release documents, and she is told that she must stay calm and quiet during next 24 hours for her possible discharge.
Of course, things do not go well for her right from the beginning. Mainly due to the physical clash with one of her fellow patients, her confinement period is extended to one week. No matter how much she tries to protest about this mistreatment, her doctor and nurses do not seem to listen to her at all, and it looks like all they care about is finding any reason to make her confined within the hospital longer with more medication.
At least, a patient named Nate (Jay Pharoah) shows some care and attention to Sawyer, and he later tells her about the systemic corruption inside the hospital. For getting more money via insurance claims, the hospital staff members deliberately keep many of their patients longer than necessary until their patients’ insurance money eventually run out, and Sawyer just happens to be their latest patient to be exploited.
While she tries to deal with this dour situation as much as she can, she is startled to see her stalker working as one of the nurses in the hospital. She naturally becomes panic whenever she confronts him, but nobody believes her frantic words. Is it possible that her mental state is actually far worse than it seemed at first? Or, is she still being stalked by him?
As the screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer frequently toys with these two different possibilities, Soderbergh, who also shot and edited the movie for himself under psuedonym as usual, keep things rolling under his efficient direction. Shooting the movie in the 1.56:1 ratio with iPhone 7 Plus, he imbues the movie with not only palpable claustrophobic mood but also raw verisimilitude, and he continues to hold our attention even when the plot comes to lose some of its momentum during its last act. Although its production budget is only around one million dollar, the movie never looks cheap at all, and you may appreciate how Soderbergh maintains his own distinctive touches throughout the film despite its limited budget.
The solid acting from his performers adds more realism to the movie. Claire Foy, a talented British actress who has been more prominent thanks to her recent acclaimed performance in TV drama series “The Crown”, ably conveys to us the accumulating panic and dread inside her character, and she is also supported well by several notable performers including Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irving, Joshua Leonard, and Matt Damon, who briefly appears as an expert who gives Sawyer sound advices on how to get away from her stalker as soon as possible.
Overall, “Unsane” is another modest but interesting filmmaking exercise from Soderbergh, who announced his retirement several years ago but eventually returned to filmmaking as making “Logan Lucky” (2017). With that film and “Unsane”, he demonstrates to us that he is still a dexterous filmmaker who can try many different things, and I certainly hope he will keep going as before.