A young woman who recently moved from Boston to Pennsylvania after a traumatic experience finds herself involuntarily committed to an insane asylum in “Unsane,” a terrifically terrifying psychological thriller starring Claire Foy (“The Crown”), Joshua Leonard (“The Blair Witch Project”), Juno Temple (“Black Mass”) and Jay Pharoah (“SNL,” “White Famous”).
Featuring an effectively eerie original script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer that keeps audiences firmly planted in the unreliable mind of its protagonist, this latest effort by prolific director Steven Soderbergh is a satisfyingly spooky exercise in genre filmmaking. Functioning as both a head-spinning psychological thriller as well as a commentary on the real world horrors perpetrated by our country’s healthcare industry, Soderbergh crafts a deeply unsettling but always fascinating cinematic experience that seamlessly alternates between horror and gallows humor, and reality and nightmare. Featuring a slew of unforgettable performances from the diverse cast, including a wickedly good lead turn by “The Crown” actress Claire Foy, and shot by Soderbergh himself in jarring fashion on an iPhone, “Unsane” is a serious scarer that will creep you to your core.
In the film, Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a young professional whose sharp wit is ill-suited to her boring office job. Forced to move from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape a stalker named David Strine (Joshua Leonard) that terrorized her for two full years, Sawyer seeks out an insurance-approved therapist to help her overcome her trauma. Sent to a seemingly upstanding facility called Highland Creek Behavioral Center for assessment, Sawyer, thinking she’s in good hands, answers questions about depression and suicidal tendencies with naïve honesty, and is subsequently duped into signing paperwork that involuntarily commits her to the mental ward for the next seven days.
As if it isn’t bad enough being surrounded by dispassionate nurses and mental patients like the shank-wielding Violet (Juno Temple), Sawyer is sent into a paranoid spiral when she comes face-to-face with her stalker, now posing as a staffer named George Shaw. But is it really her stalker, or just a product of Sawyer’s delusions? While Sawyer plots her escape with the help of her mother (Amy Irving) and a resourceful, opioid-addicted patient (Jay Pharoah) named Nate, she is forced to confront her worst nightmares as they become her reality.
“Unsane” is a terrifying trip down schizophrenia lane. Creepy, claustrophobic, and full of twists that will shake you to your core, director Steven Soderbergh depicts the psychiatric ward setting as a veritable haunted house, which serves as an apt metaphor for the dreadful modern healthcare system and makes for a great backdrop to one hell of a psychological thriller. Whether shooting on an iPhone, casting comics in dramatic roles, or toying with the audience’s sense of fantasy and reality, every choice that director Steven Soderbergh makes is designed to discomfort, creating a cinematic hellscape that is sure to leave viewers rattled.
Claire Foy is insanely captivating as the forcefully committed mental patient at the story’s center, and it’s a testament to her performance that the main mystery the film hinges on – is she delusional or not? – works as well as it does. Not to be outdone, Joshua Leonard’s unbearably perverted turn as Sawyer’s stalker is so deeply disturbing that audiences will feel legitimately unsafe in his presence. As for the others, Jay Pharoah shows off some acting chops in his first foray into somewhat dramatic territory as the savvy patient Nate, Juno Temple gives a memorably nutty turn as a mental patient committed to making Sawyer’s stay unpleasant, and Zach Cherry and Polly McKie turn in perfectly calibrated performances as a pair of indifferent nurses.
Simply put, “Unsane” is crazy good.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 98 minutes
Rated R for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references.