‘Unsane’ bends the rules but effectively gives us the creeps
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, and Amy Irving
“Unsane” – The title of director Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” (2017) is self-explanatory. In his hilarious, extremely clever heist film, the Logan family wishes to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and they not only need airtight, solid plans in place but a bit of luck too.
The title of Soderbergh’s new film, however, is a little perplexing.
“Unsane”. Is unsane a word?
Per review of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, it is not listed, nor does it appear in Webster’s Pocket Dictionary. Well, according to Google, unsane means lacking in sanity, a synonym of insane. Since we live on Planet Earth in 2018, one can only assume that unsane’s legitimacy is now established in the English language via the wisdom of Google.
Regardless of this film’s title, the crux of the story centers on a problem infinitely more serious: Is Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) imagining her on-screen experiences or are they 100 percent authentic? The difference could cost Sawyer her life.
Sawyer, a 20-something, very capable office professional, has recently moved 450 miles from Boston to an unknown city (supposedly in Pennsylvania). She lives alone, keeps her coworkers at arm’s length and dates occasionally but struggles with anxiety, because an unrelenting stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), turned her life upside down in Massachusetts. Changing her phone number, changing jobs and changing cities helped the immediacy of the circumstances, but echoes linger.
She decides to speak with a counselor, and does so for a 30-minute appointment, but after signing a form filled with fine print, the Highland Creek Behavioral Center forces her to stay overnight.
A new nightmare begins in a new city.
Soderbergh leads Sawyer and the audience into a claustrophobic, invasive trap that truly feels like a bad dream, as the Highland Creek staff methodically snares our heroine from the freedom of the outside world and into its clutches. Sawyer is no dummy, as she realizes that simply walking out of the facility under her own volition is no longer an option, but she has zero choice.
To make matters much, much worse, Sawyer sees her stalker. David works here! How can that be? Hence, the film layers a true environmental ploy with a potentially fictitious one. Is David - the man who spurned massive changes to her entire life - just in her head or does he really slither around the dark hallways and peak into rooms within Highland Creek?
“Unsane” surely sets an unsettling tone with the previously-mentioned shadowy corridors. Many of the walls are painted with a dank yellow, and Soderbergh seems to spread a thin layer of mustard on his iPhone camera lens to muddy up Sawyer’s experience and perception. (Yes, Soderbergh filmed his movie with an iPhone.) He also places his phone at creative angles, such as near a ticking wall clock that loudly counts the seconds or at Sawyer’s eye level, as the big screen images express distorted views that selfies – taken too closely - can sometimes can give.
Even though Highland Creek is a mental institution, it is – visually - a polar opposite to the big, bright rooms and vast, “open” campus in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). Although there is no escape from either hospital, with Highland Creek, one would have to dart around obscure corners and hide in the never-ending dusk of poor industrial lighting.
“Unsane” works as an effective thriller, although not necessarily an enlightened or groundbreaking one. Between Sawyer’s confusion and the purposely murky visuals, this 97-minute film hits the right off-putting notes. The various patients – including a particularly disturbed Violet (Juno Tempe) – raise our angst, but thankfully, Sawyer finds relief with levelheaded Nate (Jay Pharoah), who appears to be the only one matching her lucidity…if she is, indeed, lucid.
With the condiment-colored background, distorted atmosphere and mostly unpleasant company, David (if he does actually exist) is the ultimate villain, and Leonard’s portrayal of this middle-aged loner with outdated glasses and a mundane persona successfully offends and repulses both Sawyer and the audience. In a battle of wits or a fair fight, Sawyer would easily outsmart and outlast this maladjusted adversary, but inside this hospital, the rules are bent, and not in her favor.
Screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer bend the rules, as they sometimes ignore basic logic and after the film ends, one might feel a bit manipulated. Additionally, Sawyer’s reveal of her reality comes too soon that begs for a partial script rewrite. At the same time, Soderbergh’s masterful command of time and space and Foy’s and Leonard’s memorable performances make “Unsane” a worthwhile and ultimately disturbing trip to the movies.
Hey, after catching the film, you can wind down and bend the rules yourself. Use unsane for a triple word score during your next Scrabble match! Then again, maybe that’s a bad idea. The less reminders of David Strine, the better.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.