Prolific chameleon director Steven Soderbergh’s latest feature, “Unsane” is a wild, ambitious and altogether delirious ride. Writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer manage to pack a lot into a tight pulpy genre movie mold while Soderbergh (acting as his own director of photography) captures the mayhem with only an IPhone--alternating between gritty “shot-on-the-fly” style coverage and more impressionistic, hypnotic horror movie shots. “Unsane” is at once a disturbing, absurdist indictment of institutional corruption and abuse and an unabashedly sleazy old school slasher movie. It doesn’t entirely work but there’s rarely an anxiety free moment.
“Unsane” is at its most unsettling within the first thirty minutes. Without disclosing too much plot, the action revolves around Sawyer Valentini, (Claire Foy, assured and fiercely determined) a young woman trying to move on from past trauma. She goes to a nearby mental hospital, only looking for someone to talk to. However, the hospital won’t let her leave and through a little coercion disguised as run-of-the-mill paper work, Sawyer is involuntarily committed.
This sequence of events left me in a state of unshakable anxiety. I felt trapped and powerless along with Sawyer. The film unfolds like an absurd, deadpan nightmare. There’s a bland feel to the proceedings overall. The actors who play the hospital employees give stilted, awkward performances. But this banality is precisely what makes the film so scary and twisted. The hospital is so mundane and the employees handle Sawyer’s questions and pleas for freedom with such a cold professionalism, as if keeping people here involuntarily is the norm.
Sawyer’s predicament is further complicated by the fact that she’s a woman. In many ways “Unsane” is a horror movie very directly about the violation of consent and the way reports of abuse are mishandled and belittled by institutions that are supposed to care. Sawyer is manipulated and eventually left powerless by the people who she went to for aid. Her inquires and protests are met with a chilling, hostile indifference. They don’t listen to her. They don’t want to listen. And at times Sawyer even starts to believe their diagnosis and vague responses to her questions, which is absolutely terrifying. In the context of the #MeToo movement, “Unsane” is unexpectedly timely.
Otherwise, “Unsane” unfolds like a mix of Samuel Fuller’s angry, “in-your-face” mental hospital exposé “Shock Corridor” and a grindhouse style horror movie. Someone from Sawyer’s past comes back to haunt her, taking things down a deeply unpleasant and nasty path. While the film’s commentary on institutional corruption (how capitalism infects and rots the field of medicine) is convincingly rendered the grindhouse stuff gets tedious after a while.
The mechanics of the plot start to break down. In fact the last fifteen minutes are chaotic and sometimes flat out incoherent. In the moment it’s still viscerally involving (like the rest of the movie) but afterwards you’ll find yourself trying to plug up a litany of plot holes. Additionally, in a rushed attempt to bring everything to a neatly satisfying conclusion, (in an old fashioned genre movie sort of way) the ending is underwhelming. The rest of “Unsane” is strong enough to warrant an easy recommendation even if Soderbergh ultimately loses control of his ambitious project.