Filmmakers know that one of the hardest genres to work with is suspense. Suspense forces writers and directors to create an atmosphere that will allow their audiences to feel what the protagonist is feeling without coming off as cheesy and contrived. Steven Soderbergh’s, Unsane (2018), creatively takes viewers into a world of paranoia where the anxieties of online stalking and metal institutions come out to play.
The film follows young Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) as she is situating her self in Boston. She has relocated from Pennsylvania in an attempt to escape her stalker of two years. Suffering from the paranoia of being stalked, she visits Highland Creek Behavioral Center to seek counseling and blindly signs in for 24-hour commitment for suggesting that she has suicidal thoughts. After a frustrating escape attempt and bouts of violence, the staff is convinced that she is unstable and commits her for the entire week. During her stay she befriends Nate (Jay Pharoah), a fellow patient that explains to her that she will continue to be committed no matter how hard she proves her sanity as long as the insurance company agrees to pay for her stay. After learning that he was committed under the same pretexts, she convinces herself to put up with the circumstances and serves her time. As the days pass she becomes convinced that her stalker is working at the facility, forcing viewers to question whether or not she is truly unsane.
Sonderbergh’s film is an ode to the age-old theory that those who are in power are crazier that those in captivity. As it turns out, Sawyer’s stalker did in fact start working at the facility as a nurse and goes as far as creating a new persona and murdering anyone that is close to her. Yet, nobody believes her when she tries to expose him. Nate, the other sane patient in the ward, was a writer and had a cell phone where he sent notes and kept in contact with his publisher. After Sawyer’s stalker murders him for getting chummy with her, his people release his story that exposes the wrongfulness of the facility. Aside from focusing on the dangers of online stalking, which is a popular topic of the present, the film also criticizes the capitalistic nature of mental institutions. Both Sawyer and Nate are committed to meet a quota so the facility could get money from the insurance companies and it could continue to operate. Their characters witness and experience the abusiveness and aloofness of the staff. I mean, the staff ignores the huge fact that a murderous stalker posing as a nurse is running wild in the ward, which is a pretty problematic but very plausible narrative considering that health institutions have the reputation of being money driven and power hungry businesses that ignore the behavior of the staff as long as its kept under wraps.
Aside form the social commentary embedded in the narrative; one the biggest reasons why many have shown interest in this film is because it was filmed on an iPhone. Sonderbergh explained that he choose to film on an iPhone because it was simply easier to work with. There are many creative shots and angles in the film that would’ve been very hard to capture with a huge monster of a camera. Granted, some well lit track shots and outside track shots did appear a bit choppy in continuity but overall the quality of the film is incredible. As the plot progresses, one completely forgets that their watching iPhone content. The narrative is strong enough to overrule the film-snob idea that a movie can only be good if it’s filmed with fancy equipment.
With a surprising cameo by Matt Damon, and a solid cast including Juno Temple (ever watch Atonement? She plays the redhead cousin that marries her rapist), Unsane successfully unnerves its viewers. I wouldn’t say that its one of the greatest suspense movies of our time but it’s a really, really, good and creative B-side film. It is in every way a suspenseful journey into paranoia and a fun experience to watch. As the Duke in Moulin Rouge says, “Generally, I like it.”
By Stephanie Hinojosa