Being an autistic 19-year-old college student, watching Unsane felt so much more uneasy than I would have suspected. What I knew about Unsane prior to walking into the theater was that it was Steven Soderbergh’s own shot at the horror genre, with the added twist of being shot entirely on an iPhone. I knew Soderbergh would be the sort of filmmaker who could do so much more as he works with the fact that the film is shot entirely on an iPhone, but I did not expect that said aspect would not only be present as a mere gimmick but in order to encompass everything about Unsane that allows it to work so beautifully.
Starring Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini, a woman just like any other, she is recovering from the traumatizing experience of an incident that involved her being stalked by a co-worker. She signs herself up to join a support group for victims of stalking, but instead ends up being committed to a mental institution where she is forced to stay. But because Sawyer knows that this is not what she intended to take part within, she begins to find herself living inside of a nightmare fuelled by what she takes as being part of mere delusions. The film places yourself within the eyes of Sawyer, where you only start to question whether or not you really think everything happening all around her is real or is only a part of her own delusion, for it only encompasses everything that makes Unsane so unsettling for it plays out like a manifestation of a nightmare.
When it comes to how films portray mental health I get critical of how they view the spectrum, but the case with Unsane only reminded me of another fear that I had inside of myself. It was the very fear of being exploited because of my mental conditions and given as I’m on the autism spectrum I only remembered feeling like talking with others can only emphasize that general paranoia all the more. It feels scary because we know deep down that the way that we are being seen on the count of our mental conditions does not seek to come closer to us as humans; rather instead just they rush to “treatment” without ever considering the scope of the damage being done upon our growth. As a means of reflecting this paranoia, the iPhone cinematography aids this achievement perfectly; carrying that very feeling of being trapped within every frame and never letting go.
Unsane is a film about the damaging effects of patriarchy, especially in its approach to how women are treated within their societal roles. But given as this is a film about a victim of stalking, the most frightening aspect about its premise is the fact that the stalker himself does not ever feel like a strong figure. He feels very weak and cannot control his desires, but to that they gain sympathy whereas Sawyer, suffering from that trauma, is only put aside and made to stay institutionalized against her will. But the frightening thing about the way Soderbergh shows everything happening as is isn’t the notion that this “weak stalker” is still enough to leave a creepy presence, but you can already feel in Claire Foy’s performance that she is rational and only further pushed towards a triggering point.
It’s stunning to me that Steven Soderbergh could manage to achieve something like this only with the use of an iPhone. This is a film about how society takes advantage of the vulnerable and Soderbergh forces you to look from that lens, and the moment in which you come out, you know that the nightmare isn’t over. It’s never over because that’s how it is like for people who are continuously exploited for their vulnerability and their own stability. Steven Soderbergh traps you into that frame of mind the same way that Sawyer Valentini is trapped within this mental institute against her will. The scariest part about Unsane is just that you know it could happen on a regular day.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fingerprint Releasing.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Produced by Joseph Malloch
Starring Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 98 minutes