For the past few months I’ve survived a seismic shift to my day-to-day routine. My old regimen had been undisturbed and calcified over the span of five years, unchallenging and ingrained in my muscles. It was pleasant, sure, but it was pleasant in the way that familiar things tend to be comforting. “Familiar” and “pleasant” tend to isolate themselves within air quotes when experiencing an especially unmanageable dose of existential despair. But now my psyche is bombarded by a new set of patterns and routines that are admittedly far outside my comfort zone. Sometimes it’s unendurable. Sometimes it’s refreshing. Sometimes I need to negotiate if what I’m experiencing is the former or the latter. Banal a segue way as it may be, but here it goes: Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane so elementally understands the staggering sense of despair that comes with trying to find a foothold in trying to become a brand new person. It’s not obvious or overt about it either. This is an intelligent film made by a clever filmmaker and anchored by a persuasive lead performance. It may just be (it is) my personal experience empathizing as I observed the film’s main character endure a series of cataclysmic, life-altering events, fecklessly staving off insanity. But it’s a film that I needed at the moment and it delivered in an unexpected and outright startling way.
Unsane finds Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a financial analyst who abandoned her previous life after being victim to a stalker. She’s first observed calmly dismissing a customer on the phone, offering a piece of ominous advice, as she suggests “taking your frustrations out on me will not alter the result”. She’s subsequently brought into her boss’ office, in an awkward exchange that reduces her to a carnal object. She’s used to it and maneuvers through the conversation with a kind of clinical apathy. Later we find her meeting with a man in a bar, as she seizes the conversation with the kind of confidence and blunt forwardness that reminded me of Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane in Soderbergh’s Haywire. Unsane and Haywire share numerous ideological similarities, as Soderbergh contemplates the impossible situation of being a woman in male-dominated worlds. In Haywire, we’re subject to a woman who imposes her physical will on any oppositional force. There’s a guttural, explicitly satisfying feeling that comes from watching Kane dominate every opponent. But Unsane is more cerebral, observing Valentini leveraging her wit with only modest success. Haywire ends well; Unsane does not.
Part of the genuine thrill of Unsane is in seeing how devilishly shrewd the finer details of the film develop. The script, written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (whose previous writing credits are astonishingly unastonishing), fuzz the film’s narrative with an air of uncertainty. There’s doubt that eventually clears, as Valentini ends up accidentally committing herself. We delve into Shock Corridor / Shutter Island territory as the audience becomes actively involved within the film’s framework, where our inability to trust the film’s main character – a perceptive device that has narrative and veiled cultural/gender implications – leaves us unable to distinguish from reality and imagination.
Shot on iPhone 7, Unsane’s visual aesthetic is adequately ghastly though undeniably appropriate. I can’t imagine this film being as successful without it’s explicit visual limitations, where the shallow depth-of-field imposes an overt sense of anxiety and terror. The film is perhaps less successful when observed in the daytime (an outdoor lunch sequence is especially unremarkable), but the interior scenes within the film’s dingy hospital corridors are haunting in their pixilated gloom. Though as thematically compatible as the film’s imagery may be to the success of Unsane, it’s also Claire Foy, an actress I’ve heard by name but never seen in anything before that emerges as a real revelation. The deep-rooted sorrow that she carries throughout the film lingers heavily. Long after the film is over, it’s Foy’s presence, her dismissal of a white-male hegemony and her continued struggle to shatter the annealed visions of her past, that imparted a permanent impression on me.