While many are focused on Steven Soderbergh’s mode of filming Unsane, they might miss just how exceptional the film truly is. The fact that Soderbergh, the auteur behind Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and the mind behind mainstream blockbusters like the Oceans franchise, made Unsane on several different iPhones is certainly notable, but the important thing to know is that he has made one incredibly chilling horror thriller.
Unsane stars Claire Foy, from Netflix’s acclaimed The Crown, as Sawyer Valentini, a troubled and lonely woman. Sawyer is lonely by choice as she is afraid of making connections. Sawyer was forced to leave her adopted hometown of Boston after a stalker, David (Joshua Leonard), became obsessed with her and caused her to have to get a restraining order which he violated, necessitating her move.
Needing a little support, Sawyer decides to see a counselor. However, the counselor decides that Sawyer needs more than just a shoulder to cry on. The counselor tricks Sawyer into signing papers that place her on a 24 hour psychiatric hold that claims she is a danger to herself. Through the machinations of the clinic she’s being held in, 24 hours becomes seven days, and a fearful Sawyer becomes a pawn in a larger game.
Making things worse is that David has found Sawyer. Somehow, the dangerous stalker has convinced the clinic that he’s not David Strine and gets a job as a nurse with full access to drugs and to Sawyer. Naturally, Sawyer knows who David is, but because the clinic staff thinks she’s unstable, no one believes her and she is on her own in her attempt to fend off her stalker and survive until her seven days are up.
Unsane is terrifyingly plausible. I won’t go into spoiler territory and discuss exactly what this terrifying plausibility entails, but it’s definitely chilling. It involves our modern health care system and taking health care horror stories to a far more terrifying conclusion. Soderbergh is incredibly smart in how he crafts this story and mines it for great horror with a dash of social commentary.
Claire Foy is a terrific actress who nails every moment of Sawyer’s dark night of the soul. Foy’s Sawyer is troubled in ways that are incredibly relatable and sympathetic. Soderbergh layers in Sawyer’s backstory brilliantly, weaving that backstory cleverly into the horror unfolding, and Foy’s sympathetic performance underlines that brilliantly. Every aspect of Foy’s performance is smartly played and deepens the experience of Unsane.
I also enjoyed the smart use of SNL star and comedian Jay Pharoah. Pharoah plays a fellow patient at the mental facility with an important secret. Again, the ways in which this character employed is so clever and perfectly correlated to this unfolding plot. Pharoah’s nonchalant performance hides his character’s secret brilliantly, and Pharoah is just damn likable.
The revelatory performance of Unsane, however, comes from Joshua Leonard. Best known for his work in The Blair Witch Project, Leonard finds a note of creepy that could not be better in Unsane. The cleverly escalating madness of Unsane is built around Leonard’s slimy, creepy, and terrifyingly believable performance. The wrong choices late in this movie could tip things over into cheesy, but thankfully, Leonard and Soderbergh never misstep.
Steven Soderbergh is one of our finest directors, and his desire to experiment with form is a big part of why. Unsane isn’t the first time that Soderbergh challenged the way movies are made either. Check out his incredible work with amateur actors in the strange and fascinating thriller Bubble or his mind-blowingly great work with real life porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh was among the first big name directors to experiment with digital and now he’s experimenting with IPhones and his artistry is proven once more.
Unsane is among the best movies of 2018.