Steven Soderbergh Goes “Unsane” (2018)


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Get distorted with Claire Foy in Unsane. Image source:

The institution in Unsane is one of the most foreboding in all cinema, exploiting an unpolished aesthetic that mirrors the reality of unchecked medical facilities. It makes the Danvers State Hospital in Session 9 look cozy by comparison.

After the state shut it down as a mental-health facility and dispersed the residents into the streets, I worked as a Civil Servant at the Harrisburg State Hospital. From the first day on the job, a bizarre sensory feeling came over me, akin to the smell of water-damaged magazines sitting in some forgotten corner of a basement: from the mesh over the windows, the old carpeting, and the sun-bleached paint on the walls, there was something oppressive about the environment. The patients had vacated the premises, but the maladies that kept them there for years still seemed to permeate the hallways.

I guess my unsettled headspace was not unlike that of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane.

Sawyer is a haunted character who finds herself involuntarily committed to an institution. A strong-willed young professional whose daily life is calibrated to an obsessive-compulsive degree, the notion of losing control – coupled with a stalking specter from her past – leads her down a trail of unraveling sanity…or does it?

My fear for most movies that center around a largely subjective point of view is the “fallacy of the Fight Club twist,” especially when a character’s perception indicates a distinct disconnect from what what we consider “reality.” The revelation of Tyler Durden has diminished in the years since the film’s release, but its emotional and thematic resonance remains, standing above the flood of scripts that have used it as a lazy deus ex machina ever since. (See also: High Tension, which centered said twist around a female character.)

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Violet (Juno Temple) looms over Sawyer (Foy). Image source:

Some may dismiss Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script as typical – straightforward, even – but it finds that rare discomfort zone between psychological depth and unabashed pulp, and is synthesized into the best of two lurid worlds by Soderbergh’s stark directorial approach. As a result, the film hums along with an aggressively engaging energy that hooked me from the start. It also contains a dark sense of humor that had me laughing out loud at certain points.

Unsane‘s aesthetic and narrative sensibility isn’t far-removed from David Lynch’s Inland Empire, the tale of “a woman in trouble” who undergoes a (possible) downward spiral of madness and self-destruction. Like Laura Dern in that film, Foy essays a complex portrait of dissolution and (possible) redemption, fearlessly hitting beats of antipathy and empowerment. Similarly, her physical acting is an unpredictable catalog of subtle tics, nervous reactions, and hostile intimidation (which makes me all the more excited for her take on Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web).

Shot on an iPhone, the image lacks the overly calibrated tones of a high-profile Hollywood production. In its darkest moments, Unsane looks like mud. During daylight hours, skin tones beam with radioactive brightness, leaving no blemish hidden. Corridors become dark and threatening, lit only by the red of exit signs. The film is dreary to the point where you can practically see the fingerprints and dried saliva on the commissary windows. Meanwhile, a handful of familiar actors (including Joshua Leonard and Juno Temple) are rendered grubby and unrecognizable, complementing the streaks and cracks in the institution walls.

Avoiding the drooling, teddy-bear-coddling asylum-dweller cliches, Soderbergh also – in a callback to his big-pharma-condemning Side Effects – takes aim at the viperous nature of HMOs looking to cash in on people’s misfortune. Interesting to see a film that depicts having health insurance as a harbinger of doom.

Unsane‘s narrative allows the viewer only a certain measure of satisfaction, and only after we’ve experienced a whiplash of emotions with Sawyer. Soderbergh’s approach recalls the surreal psychological landscapes of Repulsion and Carnival of Souls (which also centered around damaged, distant women). The suddenness with which Sawyer’s life goes haywire will invite savvy filmgoers to jump to conclusions about the story’s ultimate trajectory, but there’s more to it than just another rote round of Guess the Twist.

Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

3 thoughts on “Steven Soderbergh Goes “Unsane” (2018)

  1. Since our conversation, I thought about the story’s impossibilities more as well as the stock psycho character, and my rating dropped a half-star to 1.5 out of 5. Regardless, I like your points, and believe me, I want to love this thing, but the writing got really lazy in spots, which undermined the entire venture.

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    1. I know we talked about it on the show (which is part of the reason I avoided it in the review), but I think Leonard’s character, while stock, transcends his cliched status through just how “committed” he is to that deluded, delusional headspace. A lesser film would introduce that as a twist five minutes from the end, and have the heroine just blow him away. That Soderbergh and the writers spent time developing their unhealthy relationship, underlining flaws in both their personalities, made the concluding machinations more resonant for me. Just my two cents. Looking forward to arguing about this one again on our year-end show!

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