Film Review: Unsane

by Carrie Kahn on March 23, 2018

Soderbergh’s psych ward horror pic commits to mediocrity  

Unwittingly committed to a psychiatric hospital, Sawyer (Claire Foy) tries in vain to leave.

Director Steven Soderbergh, whose much anticipated Logan Lucky last year ended up being a disappointment, continues his losing streak with his new film Unsane, a schlocky, run of the mill horror film that feels like the work of a first year film student, not a prolific and award winning director. Shot entirely on an iPhone 7Plus, the picture looks low budget and unpolished, although the grainy, shaky aesthetic in some sense works for the pulpy story. Too bad nothing else does, though; instead, we are treated to an interminable 97 minutes of Soderbergh trying to be a hip experimentalist.

The filming method is about all that’s even mildly innovative in this otherwise straightforward thriller. Maybe last year’s utterly unique Get Out has spoiled me for horror films now, but I went into Unsane expecting a big twist, reveal, or surprise, and waited in vain, feeling much like Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” protagonist as the film wrapped up. The film starts promisingly enough: Sawyer (The Crown’s Claire Foy) is a frustrated data analyst in a boring bank job. When we see her freak out at the end of a supposed stress-relieving Tinder date, we realize something is off.

Fellow Highland Creek patient Nate (Jay Pharoah) gives some advice to Sawyer (Claire Foy).

Turns out Sawyer has just moved to Pennsylvania from Boston to escape two years of stalking from a seemingly benign man she dated very briefly after meeting him while volunteering at his dying father’s hospice. Still jittery and depressed, Sawyer seeks help from a support group at the innocuous sounding Highland Creek Behavioral Center. While at the facility for what she thinks is a routine consult, however, Sawyer’s world changes in an instant. In a totally unrealistic plot set up, Sawyer signs paperwork without reading it, unquestioningly allows facility staff to lead her through a variety of exams, and ultimately finds herself unwittingly committed to the facility for a 24-hour hold, which, through a series of yet more implausible events, becomes a full seven day commitment.

It goes without saying that Highland Creek ends up being a chamber of horrors straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, replete with a cold Nurse Ratched type (Polly McKie) with zero empathy or patience. Sawyer, already horrified at what has happened to her, becomes even more unhinged when she thinks that George, one of the hospital’s staff (Joshua Leonard) is David, her stalker. Is he really, though? Or is Sawyer having a complete mental breakdown?

David (Joshua Leonard) becomes obsessed with Sawyer (Claire Foy) after she helps him with his elderly father.

These questions are interesting for maybe five minutes, before the story (by relatively neophyte screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, who appear to have cribbed the script from Misery and Girl, Interrupted, as well as Cuckoo’s Nest) devolves into predictable, over the top, unrealistic camp (in one of the film’s more glaring improbabilities, male and female patients sleep in the same dormitory-style ward, which just proves Soderbergh and his writers have never set foot in a real psychiatric hospital). The film does manage a few jump-out-of-your-seat scares near its end, but these stem from typical “Oh no! The bad guy’s right there!” plot points, and not from something unusual or unanticipated.

That Soderbergh wrangled Claire Foy for this cheesy mess is a bit of a coup, although she seems vaguely aware she’s in a vehicle beneath her talents, as her performance is a bit one note, and she doesn’t make much effort to disguise her natural British accent in many of the scenes. Juno Temple, as a fellow Highland Creek patient, seems to be enjoying herself more, as she at least commits (no pun intended) to the camp factor by going full throttle crazy. And Saturday Night Live’s Jay Pharoah has a nice dramatic turn as Nate, a longer-term patient who takes Sawyer under his wing to show her the ropes. Amy Irving doesn’t get much to do as Sawyer’s worried mother, but at least when she’s on screen, we can muse, “Wow, that’s Amy Irving!? What happened to her career?” Joshua Leonard is appropriately chilly and inscrutable, as he has the more difficult role of keeping the audience wondering about his identity and his motivations.

Of course by the time the truth about David and Highland Creek are revealed, we no longer care, except now we’re angry that what we thought was going to happen indeed does. Where’s the fun in that? Even a tacked on coda — our last hope for a big, exciting revelation — falls flat, and feels like the writers just wrapped things up in a hurry because they themselves were bored. Soderbergh now has two misfires in two years; let’s hope a 2019 offering doesn’t strike him out.

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Unsane opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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