Unsane. 2018. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer.
Starring Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Amy Irving, Polly McKie, Sarah Stiles, Raúl Castillo, & Juno Temple.
Regency Enterprises/Extension 765/New Regency Pictures
Rated R. 98 minutes.
Some people seem willing to convince themselves the art of movies is dying out, in favour of blockbusters + superhero adventure movies being pumped out of Hollywood. Let’s face it— that’s nonsense. Every era’s had their Hollywood studio phase, whether it’s action movies, zombies, sports flicks, or whatever is making them money at the time, there’s always been a system of fads. Like any industry. All the while, there are many auteurs working inside/outside of the major studio system.
One of them is Steven Soderbergh.
Part of why Soderbergh’s so talented is because he constantly challenges himself and his audience, never content to play it safe. As a writer he takes on different types of narratives, as a director he’s always recognisable yet consistently shifting shape and form in his style. For Unsane, he uses the iPhone 7 Plus as his weapon of choice for camera and pushes technique a step further. Although this type of filming has its disadvantages, Soderbergh spins the idiosyncrasies of shooting on a more unstable medium such as the iPhone into a unique style complimenting the movie’s themes.
In terms of story, writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay explores a timely subject concerning one of society’s core, debilitating issues: our inability to believe victims, in specific women. We follow one woman’s journey – Sawyer (Claire Foy) – as she’s gaslighted by a stalker, railroaded by the system and society, while ironically put in danger by those meant to protect her. Sadly, a story many women know well.
From the moment Sawyer sees a man from behind in her office, walking down the hall away, his face unseen, there’s a constant air of paranoia surrounding her character’s perspective. It’s an immediate technique Soderbergh uses. Sawyer’s presented as someone who may or may not be totally stable, keeping the audience stuck between her perspective v. what the camera’s allowing us to see. We’re put in a position where the recurring images of her stalker leads the audience to doubt her perspective, one in which we have to choose whether we trust Sawyer. This is the same societal position we’ve found ourselves in with a wave of women finally feeling comfortable enough culturally to come forward with stories of their sexual assault and rape. We should be listening. Often we aren’t. Gradually, this changes, as we see the truth.
The ugly truth comes from the only helpful source: Nate (Jay Pharoah). Not even other women are of any help. Nate, as a black man, understands how the system treats marginalised people. He helps Sawyer see the bureaucracy of the psychiatric hospital, as well as the American healthcare system overall in regards to mental health. She’s swept up in a bureaucratic labyrinth for several reasons. The most significant is due to how people with mental illnesses are treated, as unable to care for themselves, or unable to comprehend what’s best for them. Sawyer gets locked in the hospital unknowingly leading to a snowball effect. The healthcare system then acts as machinery, chewing her up.
Unsane eventually move into Louis Althusser territory. Together, as parts of a greater repressive state apparatus, the mental healthcare system can sometimes work in conjunction with the police and the justice system. That’s incredibly dangerous. In one scene, Sawyer calls 911. When cops show up, they just look at forms, they don’t talk to Sawyer, and they leave— bureaucracy combined with the physical arm of the law, all aligned to work against the individual, subjugating people to the will of the state.
Of course patriarchy plays a part, too. Male cops and doctors only perpetuate the misunderstandings/outright lies against Sawyer, as well as other women victims. Women who are stalked usually get treated like they’re crazy, until it’s too late. They’re driven to madness by men – because most women understand when a woman says she’s being stalked – and then they’re treated as the problem. All hallmarks of gaslighting. Society as a whole does it to women. We see it perfectly illustrated in the scene where Sawyer first sees David (Joshua Leonard) posing as a man named George— she knows it’s him, but since she’s been labelled as unstable nobody believes her, not even enough to just verify that what she’s saying is/isn’t true. People always tell women to seek help if they’re being stalked. They simply don’t realise how hard society and its systems are actually working against these women.
A key scene that’s frustrating, sad, tragic, all rolled into one involves Matt Damon’s cameo. He’s there to help Sawyer figure out how to live life post-stalker. He explains a number of things, such as “situational awareness,” all of which easily shows us how victims are made to bear the weight, having to rearrange and change their lives because of the law’s inability to genuinely keep them safe.
Ultimately, Unsane exposes not just the problems society has with believing women in combination with the various systems failing victims, it also strikes hard at male entitlement using the stalking plot as its crux. Nearing the end, David talks with Sawyer whom he’s keeping locked in the basement. She explains she isn’t the ideal woman he believes her to be in his mind. This is a major problem with men, and certainly stalkers: they treat surface desire as a sentiment of love, believing that because a woman is beautiful her personality corresponds, and they feel entitled to women for simply noticing them.
The ending is an important moment. Six months after surviving the plot’s main events, Sawyer has a vision – visual and auditory – of David in a restaurant. She nearly puts a knife in him, before realising it’s a random man. She flees, then Soderbergh does a classic 1970s-era freeze frame, closing in on Sawyer’s haunted eyes. The lingering trauma of women being stalked and assaulted never disappears. It’s something they have to live with forever. So, although we know Sawyer’s free, that David was exposed and also the hospital itself, the fear of trauma crawling back up again never goes away.
Unsane is so powerful for how deep it gets to the heart of its themes, confronting tough truths in an age where we’re finally coming to a head societally with abusive, powerful men and trying to air out the dark corners. There’s a long, long, long way to go yet, but the past couple years, at least in the entertainment industry, has provided a watershed moment in Western society. Soderbergh gives us an experimental iPhone movie, and at the very same time offers up a cinematic conversation about how we treat women and mental illness, and our inability to believe in the devastating individual stories of abuse victims. People can call it a B-movie all they want— doesn’t diminish the power of Unsane.