Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is the latest in a grand tradition of movies about young women incarcerated in madhouses who don’t actually belong there. The game this thriller plays is that you don’t know whether the woman in question screaming, “I’m not crazy!” at her handlers is telling the truth or truly needs help. As you’d expect, it’s a game he plays dexterously.
Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a bank analyst from Boston who recently relocated to Pennsylvania because her life was made hell by a violent, romantically obsessed stalker named David Strine (Joshua Leonard). When she goes to a mental hospital and confesses to thinking about suicide, she signs what she thinks is routine paperwork but is in fact a voluntary 24-hour commitment. More upsetting, she finds David working there as an orderly named George Shaw. Could her stalker have somehow gotten a job administering her daily lithium dose? The trouble is, Sawyer can’t stop acting crazy, assaulting a patient and a staffer during her first night, which buys her six more days there.
Our unreliable protagonist means that you can’t take any of Sawyer’s interactions with David/George at face value. This does not pay off as well as might be expected, and the plot falls apart if you apply real-world logic once you know everything. The emphasis on anatomizing David’s diseased mind has the perverse effect of characterizing him more strongly than her, and the climactic confrontation between them in a padded cell is stagey stuff.
Still, the filmmakers take in some aspects of the mental health industry’s shadier side without breaking step, as Sawyer’s protests run into a wall of indifference from police, lawyers, and medical staff. If the close-ups seem uncomfortably close and the camerawork seems shaky, that’s because Soderbergh is shooting this on an iPhone 7+, using the technology to visually reflect the protagonist’s disordered point of view.
The cast holds up well as usual in Soderbergh’s films. I haven’t seen The Crown, the British TV show that Foy starred in and was scandalously underpaid for, but despite a ragged American accent, she does well to look small and terrified and like someone who might be seeing things. Leonard (still best known from The Blair Witch Project) is even better as a man who’s terrifying precisely because he’s weak, and Jay Pharoah contributes a likable supporting turn as an opioid-addicted patient who tells Sawyer about the hospital’s inner workings and, more importantly to her, has a smuggled cellphone.
It all adds up to yet another low-key winner for Soderbergh. I wonder if it’s too low-key for the cineplexes in our Netflixed era. It’d be a shame if moviegoers left this to their TVs, because they could do so much worse when they’re at the theater. Don’t let Unsane go unseen.
Starring Claire Foy and Joshua Leonard. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer. Rated R.