This review of Unsane was written by Christy Choueiri. Choueiri is a published poet and writer and the poetry editor for Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal. Currently, she is pursuing a graduate degree in English Literature at the American University of Beirut where her work focuses on depictions of gender, sexuality, and mental health in cultural forms.
Considering the nature of thrillers as cinematic works that mainly aim to jolt audience members into shock, the number of films within that genre that are able to both provide necessary social critique and leave spectators with the kinds of narratives that are inductive of night terrors is quite low, as the focus seems to be solely on shock factor. This year, however, Soderbergh’s Unsane proves to defy expectations, for despite the slightly overdone plotline, the underpinnings of the movie are quite critical in nature, and indirectly aim at highlighting the falsities of sectors within the mental health “industry.”
Unsane follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a young woman who unwillingly gets admitted into a psychiatric facility after seeking therapeutic help for the psychological aftermath she experiences as a result of being stalked. The reason behind the high admission rate is one that brings to the forefront the skewed motivations behind the work of privatized healthcare clinics in specific, and the work of the healthcare industry in general. The movie dramatically highlights the grim reality behind the experience of mental illness in an age where morality and economic advancement seem to negate each other.
One rather problematic aspect of the movie is its depiction of almost all the other mentally ill characters Valentini is surrounded by, as patients in the movie fit into the category of mentally troubled individuals who are recognized as nothing more than social nuisances and, in some cases, social hazards. Despite the fact that the premise of the movie does not confine itself to the rather redundant mental-asylum-thriller narrative and subsequently provides spectators with what seems to be a more personal, emotionally mature story, mental health patients in the film are represented as unified, heavily dysfunctional entities with barely any differences setting them apart. Such a characterization, other than being unoriginal and immensely overplayed, cannot and should not exist in times when mental illness is conflated with dangerous and/or “crazy” behavior. And that pokes a hole in the main premise of the film: if some of patients do not actually require admission into the unit, then painting almost the entirety of the patients as mentally-ill betrays the logic of the film.
What will undoubtedly be punctuated in conversations about Unsane is its style: the film was shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus camera, which takes a minute to get used to, but quickly becomes familiar (though Sean Baker admittedly did it more seamlessly in Tangerine). The use of the unconventional camera plays to the plot’s strengths most when Valentini is in the middle of a confrontation with her stalker, and the victim is physically going around in circles with the camera tracking her every step, creating a slightly disorienting — and subsequently uncomfortable — experience for spectators. In Unsane, the purpose of the camera work is not to zoom in on the oohs and ahs of the thriller, but rather shifts its focus to making viewers gain a visual understanding of the tension, pain, and violence of the ordeal.
The intermingling of Claire Foy’s Valentini and Joshua Leonard’s David Strine —both of whom deliver solid performances (though Foy’s American accent is quite inconsistent throughout) — allows for an interesting power dynamic between the two that presents Valentini as much more complex than she comes off. In fact, there are moments throughout Unsane that will have viewers absolutely despising Valentini and problematically empathizing with Strine. Valentini is ultimately not the type of victim the viewer (or Strine) expect; she does not mechanically go about surviving. Instead, she is the most human she can possibly be: infuriating, stupid, selfish, and everything any one of us would be if they were put in a similar situation.
Unsane boasts a quirky dark style but smothers its substance. Yet it manages to transmits humanity in its most vulnerable, irrational, dangerous, and uncomfortable states, and for a thriller to do that is indeed refreshing.