Tired of being held against her will at Highland Creek Behavioral Center, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) — the frazzled protagonist of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane —pulls aside a nurse and, in her sweetest voice, thanks the nurse for her care and cooperation, and asks if she could call her family to explain that she’ll be detained for a few days.
The nurse sees right through Sawyer’s ploy, as do we viewers. We’ve already watched with our own eyes Sawyer pull the same move on a coworker and we’ve watched her behave erratically with a date. So no matter how much she insists that she does not belong in a psychiatric home, that she only wanted therapeutic help for trauma from an intense stalker, we don’t believe her.
And that’s kind of a problem, because the last few years have taught us the importance of believing women about their fears and abuse. At its best, Unsane grapples with this issue of trust, turning the iPhone on which Soderbergh shot the film into an unreliable narrator and raising epistemological questions about how we decide who to believe.
It’s disappointing, then, that the movie does no more than suggest these ideas before abandoning them for rote thriller story.
Unsane occasionally asks us to think about what evidence we believe and what we dismiss. The camera shows Sawyer lying to people and admitting to suicide plans, things that make us think she belongs in an institution. But later, Soderbergh’s camera lingers on a room that Sawyer just left to capture people talking about her behind her back or to show us an orderly messing with her meds.
Moving his iPhone in a mechanical manner or positioning it at odd angles, Soderbergh gives the film a surveillance footage appearance, which not only reinforces the sense of paranoia, but also the limited perspective, reminding viewers that we’re always looking at things through our own personal lens.
Soderbergh gives us plenty of frames to help guide that personal lens, in the form of characters who claim to know what’s going on. SNL actor Jay Pharoah is particularly good as a Highland Creek veteran who may be an undercover reporter, as is Joshua Leonard as the orderly that Sawyer believes to be her stalker. These explanations serve as a Rorschach test for viewers, as our preferred explanation says more about our assumptions than it does the actual plot.
That is, until, the movie more or less explains it all. By the time we hit the third act, all truths are revealed, and hunter and hunted play out their roles in a dutiful, if unimaginative fashion.
This shift diminishes the film, not just because the slasher-esque final act is boring, and not just because the first act questions were so compelling. It’s disappointing because Unsane evokes real-world fears about violence against women and the public’s reluctance to believe victims, and subordinates them to nifty iPhone tricks.
Soderbergh has shown himself to be a smarter filmmaker than that, even in his popcorn flicks. Unsane falls short of the standard set for himself, but is even more disappointing for failing to fully address one of the most pressing issues of our time.