Unsane, Steven Soderbergh’s latest experiment sees the director take another sharp turn, this time channeling the Final Girl horror trope ala Sidney Prescott in Scream and Laurie Strode in Halloween, but tailoring it to the current conversations in pop feminism i.e. believing women, the after-effects of trauma. Claire Foy’s Sawyer Valentini is a Final Girl for our times, a career woman whose life appears permanently deranged by the memory of her stalker is committed (voluntarily, but against her will) to a mental ward, only to discover her stalker has again made his way into her life by posing as an orderly.
At first the film is primarily a psychological thriller. From the opening scene when Sawyer appears to be giving a customer or client an unfiltered piece of her mind over the phone, it’s clear that she is an aggressive personality. Her coworkers are taken aback with how direct and caustic she presents herself, and later we see that this personality extend to her dating life when, within minutes of meeting a new online date, she firmly lays out exactly what she wants for the remainder of their encounter.
But there’s more to Sawyer than the fearless bitch-in-charge persona she dons, as we soon discover that her behavior is in part rooted in her anxiety of being followed and harassed. When Sawyer is essentially “locked up” in Highland Creek Behavioral Center, she’s characteristically outraged and causes a scene, delusionally hoping that the cops will come and correct this mistake. Sawyer is incensed and violent and reckless, which can be read as the flare-ups of a clinically unwell person, or as an appropriate reaction to injustice. Has Sawyer been erroneously committed, or are her actions proving otherwise?
Naturally, no one believes Sawyer when she denounces her stalker who suddenly appears as part of the Highland Creek staff. It’s not difficult to understand why, given that she is a patient at a psychiatric ward. The ambiguity of whether or not to believe Sawyer in the first half of the film, which facts we should read, the ones offered to us by Sawyer, or the ones offered to us by the institution, the assumptions we make about “crazy” people which so often masquerade as a logical assembly of the facts, creates a startling parallel to the cultural moment spearheaded by #MeToo. Believe women. Or not to believe women. Horror ensues in a culture that finds it difficult to believe the victims of a crime, particularly when that individual has some disqualifying trait about them–in this case mental illness. Being a woman might also tick that box. Or being a black person, as we see in the fate of Jay Pharoah’s character.
About midway through the film, we’re swept into a brilliant cutaway scene that goes into detail about Sawyer’s former life in Boston, and a truly horrifying breakdown of the changes she’s had to make in order to protect herself from her stalker. Avoiding walking home alone at night for instance, and carrying her keys between her knuckles for self defense. All of these eerily familiar because they are also commonplace habits of a lot of women that don’t even have stalkers, but that exist in a default state of fear, because being a woman in and of itself poses a risk. This scene functions as the turning point for the film’s genre shift, from thriller into a more strictly horror film. The first half takes on a more distanced, skeptical understanding of Sawyer’s claims, and teases a mystery to be solved that based on the unreliability of those claims. The cutaway scene functions much like the “big reveal” at the end of an ordinary thriller, in this case doing away with the uncertainty surrounding Sawyer and her stalker’s presence at the ward. These facts laid out, the film pivots into its final form– the slasher film.
There were some lighting issues that were annoying, and which I ultimately attribute to Soderbergh’s use of the iPhone. I want to think this was an accepted consequence of the project’s vision, and not intentional, because I’m not sure to what end the disruptive shading, and near blacking out of entire faces and bodies could serve. To erase expression and highlight ambiguity? To add a superficial air of mystery? In any case, I felt the quality detracted from my experience at times. Whereas Sean Baker’s iPhone classic Tangerine is impressive hyper-saturated signature look, the film felt ultimately polished and like it actively worked around some of the iPhone deficiencies. Unsane made no such careful consideration, so much as it was focused on flexing the iPhone’s unique capabilities.
So while the part of me that was frustrated with the persisting shadows wishes this film wasn’t shot on an Iphone, certain scenes really exemplified the creative potential of the device. I enjoyed some of the more intimate angles, as if the phone were propped up on a desk, as well as one of the most memorable scenes in the entire film, in which Sawyer confronts her stalker within the confines of solitary imagined as a small, blue padded room. Given the iPhone’s maneuverability, the camera moved in such a way that made its presence felt, offering the audience an immersive 360 degree view of the set. In certain settings (I’m thinking under the fluorescents of Sawyer’s office and the hospital corridors) I liked the gritty quality of some of the more well-lit shots, which I found reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and many B horror films of the 70s and 80s. In fact the iPhone’s potential was really unleashed in the second half of the film, where the plot takes a traditionally more “horror” turn and Soderbergh begins to flirt with the conventions of popular sub-genres within horror. The green night vision shots inside of the back of the stalker’s car evoked the trend in found footage horror spearheaded by The Blair Witch Project and that final bloody trail chase scene through the barren woods felt ripped out of a cabin-madness classic– I Spit on Your Grave, The Evil Dead, and Wrong Turn come to mind. Then finally, in the breathless final scene, Sawyer emerges victorious after having killed her stalker. Drenched in blood running down an empty road to nowhere, like so many Final Girls before her, Soderbergh ends the film on a freeze frame– a shoutout to the great giallo films of Dario Argento.
Unsane offers other elements to consider, the least impressive being the on-the-nose critique on the corruption sustaining the injustice that Sawyer and others like her face. Otherwise the film provides sly commentary on the limits of personal agency in 2018 (funny enough, the iPhone or lack thereof seems to function as the only source of real power).