Film Review: ‘Unsane’ is Two Good Films Rolled into One Okay Movie

Claire Foy | Beecker Street

If you have ever thought about turning your iPhone videos into a feature length film, then Steven Soderbergh‘s latest, “Unsane,” is here to inspire you.

Claire Foy stars in this thriller as Sawyer Valentini. We first meet Sawyer on a typical work day. She meets with her boss for a performance review, and his behavior suggests inappropriate intentions toward his newest employee. Sawyer is a recent transplant to the area, having moved to town because of problems with a stalker. Although, from her daily phone calls with her mother, it seems she never actually told anyone about those issues.

In an effort to stave off the never-ending anxiety, Sawyer visits a local psychiatrist. While attempting to set up a follow up visit, the doctor thrusts some “standard medical forms” into her hands and sends her off to the lobby where she completes the paperwork and inadvertently commits herself to a three day psych hold. And during a tumultuous first night, those three days are stretched into seven as she is deemed a danger to herself or others.

What follows is essentially two films smashed together into one. Both premises are interesting in their own right. Sawyer meets fellow patient Nate (Jay Pharoah), who is an undercover reporter digging into insurance fraud. Specifically the tricking of healthy people into involuntary commitment. And she also meets a night nurse (Joshua Leonard) whom she insists is the very stalker she recently escaped.

A film that looks at the potential for insurance fraud is fascinating and timely. Particularly when health care in general is such a vital topic. Likewise, the idea of a stalker trapping his victim in a mental health facility is scary and thrilling. The problem is, this film tries to do both, and ends up not doing either particularly well.

For one thing, the script—by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer—shows its cards far too early. You learn right away whether or not the hospital is committing fraud. You learn after only a few scenes of wondering whether the nurse is actually Sawyer’s dreaded stalker. If only these mysteries had been drawn out  a bit longer, it could have really taken this story to a new level of tension.

In the telling of these two separate stories, the narrative gets clunky and the pace is wildly inconsistent. The tension that remains is heightened by two things: Claire Foy’s terrific performance, and, oddly, Soderbergh’s use of those iPhones.

The entire film was shot with those brilliant little devices. Which has been done before to great effect. Sean Baker photographed his entire 2015 film “Tangerine” on iPhone. And it mostly works here, with “Unsane.” The tight, close-up angles interspersed with the use of fish-eye lenses to simulate hidden cameras and CCTV give the film a sense of claustrophobia that can be difficult to accomplish with standard equipment. But it also left the film unnecessarily jarring in places. At times it feels more like a gimmick than a carefully considered style choice. Still, Soderbergh is at his best when he’s being at least a little experimental, and he deserves praise for what he does here.

Unsane | Bleecker Street“Unsane” truly rests, though, on a great performance from Claire Foy. She has demonstrated enormous talent through her role as Queen Elizabeth II on “The Crown,” and she was a treasure as Diana Cavendish in “Breathe.” Here, she takes that talent and goes in a new direction. Her Sawyer is not really a very likable person. She is demanding and sometimes a little rude. She refuses to play nice with anyone. Which, of course, is partly due to her traumatic past, and partly because she’s just kind of a cold person. And Foy gives you plenty of reason to care what happens to this woman, even if you don’t particular like her.

Joshua Leonard is also very good as the nurse/potential stalker. He is creepy in the right ways, never overplaying what could easily have just become a caricature.

Jay Pharoah was good while he was there. But we needed and deserved more of him. It was good to see him play a non comedic role. While you’re waiting for him to say something funny, he says something helpful instead. Hopefully we will get to see more diverse types of roles for him soon.

Juno Temple shows up in “Unsane,” too. Her Violet is very definitely not sane, and it would have been nice to explore more of that character. Sadly, Violet is reduced to little more than a plot device that pops onto the screen only when necessary to move a scene in a particular direction.

This is a film with a lot to offer, and a lot to distract. It is intentionally uncomfortable, but could have channeled that discomfort into a more focused way. The end result is that nothing feels finished, even when it is.

“Unsane” is distributed by Bleecker Street and is in theaters Friday.

GRADE: (★★½)