One of the most famous fictional depictions of mental instability is George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman whose husband continually psychologically torments her to cover up his search for hidden jewels (it was based on the 1938 play Gas Light). It’s where we got the term “gaslighting” from — an example of how art can help people elucidate the phenomena they’ve always recognized in their lives but have never had a name for. The new film Unsane follows in Gaslight’s tradition, demonstrating how entire institutions deny people’s individual experiences, demanding they submit to the official version of reality or face severe consequences.
The relationship between people, groups, and the supposed social contract is a subject director Steven Soderbergh frequently returns to, in films as varied as Erin Brockovich, Traffic, The Informant!, Contagion, and even last year’s lighthearted heist flick Logan Lucky. With Unsane, he and screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Geer interrogate America’s treatment of mental health through the lens of a psychological thriller. While protagonist Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) undergoes a heightened, Hitchockian journey after she’s involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, many facets of her experience are based in reality. For every chase or cat-and-mouse sequence, there’s another simply about the cold, mundane procedures that make up the lives of the patients, or the uncaring bureaucracy overseeing them. And the latter scenes are just as scary, if not more so.
Sawyer has recently upended her entire life, quitting her job and moving to a new city in order to get away from a stalker (Joshua Leonard). She goes in for what she thinks is a routine psychiatric evaluation in order to join a support group, only to find herself imprisoned in the hospital. It’s later explained that there has been no paperwork mix-up; the facility is holding on to her until her insurance pays up, after which she’ll be free to go. This is a horrifyingly real practice, and the movie follows this thread of removing human autonomy for the sake of profit, exploring all the ways in which Sawyer and her fellow inmates are clamped into drug-controlled routines in cheap conditions to hold them until their jailers get the ransom. When Sawyer swears up and down that one of the orderlies is her stalker, her pleas are ignored. Shove pills into the crazy lady and strap her to her bed.
Any worthwhile psychological thriller will get the viewer wondering what is and isn’t actually happening after a while, and Unsane is no different. From the moment David, the stalker, first appears, we question if it’s truly him or if Sawyer is merely seeing things. How could he have possibly gotten a job at the hospital? Has being committed driven her to madness? Or did she break with reality earlier and in fact belongs here after all?
In an early scene, Sawyer is on a date that’s going well until she sees her companion as David and reacts badly, setting a precedent for the same thing to happen later in the facility. We aren’t shown what David looks like, and thus have no frame of reference as she insists that the orderly is him. In the same way that the hospital gaslights Sawyer, Unsane skillfully undermines the audience’s confidence in its own main character, whose eyes we’re seeing everything through. Until flashbacks show us David’s face, we only have Sawyer’s word to go on; it would be interesting to see a survey breaking down the demographics of viewers who believe Sawyer versus those who doubt her.
The first-person feeling is reinforced by the photography. As with many of his other films, Soderbergh has also acted as editor and cinematographer here. He’s an inveterate stylistic experimenter, and here he’s shot everything on a phone — an iPhone 7 Plus, to be precise. Unsane sometimes feels like an exposé shot undercover by a patient, or a fly-on-the-wall documentary observing the mechanics of the hospital. But at its most nightmarish, it sinks fully within Sawyer’s fraying mind. Soderbergh continually holds a wide depth of field, keeping subjects, backgrounds, and foregrounds alike in focus and pushing the audience to warily scan each frame for details. When Sawyer unknowingly takes a bad batch of pills, her psychotic break is illustrated via a terrifying scene in which a shot of her from the front and one from the back are superimposed over each other, discordant music screeching as she stumbles about. The abrupt break from the film’s grounded aesthetic jars you out of any sense of stability.
The tension grinds in further as the film approaches its climax and Sawyer must confront her metaphorical demons in quite literal ways. Unsane is made up of enclosed spaces — locked rooms, hallways to nowhere, solitary confinement. An iPhone can maneuver with a fluidity within these spaces which suggests the nervous energy of someone itching to escape but with nowhere to go. And when the time comes for Sawyer to fight and run, that energy is unleashed with full-bore ferocity. What’s real and what isn’t becomes less important than what action you take.
Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane opens in theaters nationwide March 23.