Warning: This piece contains spoilers.
In “Unsane,” Steven Soderbergh’s psychological thriller, Claire Foy is not photographed from her “best side.” Against bright surroundings every freckle, blemish and dark circles under her eyes are highlighted. She looks like someone who doesn’t sleep well, takes quantities of psych meds, and has a drinker’s ruddy pallor. She has a terrible temper and her co-workers recoil when she unleashes it.
Thus she is clearly certifiable well before she is incarcerated in a psychiatric ward. The viewer will take from this film that Foy’s stay at the loony bin is not her first. For she clearly knows the lingo necessary to get her processed out. Before a robotic psychiatrist she speaks of “support systems,” and who to contact if suicidal thoughts intrude.
Foy is ready-made for Soderbergh’s post-modernist slant on the B-movie psychological dramas. She is the epitome of the “unreliable” narrator. As such until the plot unfolds the viewer is not given a stable berth from which to follow the story, and audiences can become as disoriented as Foy. Thus the first impression the viewer will get when Foy “encounters” her supposed stalker now working as a nurse in the psychiatric facility is that she is merely hallucinating. But without giving too much away, Soderbergh affirms the old saying that “sometimes a paranoid is right.”
What is truly unsettling about “Unsane” lies in how well the stalker knows how to manipulate the system, and how he has turned the psychiatric ward into a torture room for those who have figured him out. Soderbergh gives us an ordinary looking stalker — heavy beard, large scholarly glasses — with apparent, but twisted, love for Foy. Worse, Soderbergh gives the stalker a powerful position among the hospital staff; he has medical power over Foy as he is tasked with administering medicine to the lines of insane occupants. He takes advantage of this by giving the already disoriented Foy a hallucinogen.
Soderbergh doesn’t employ the B-movie techniques of shadowy corridors for jump scares. Instead everything is bathed in hospital white. The viewer is given a basic geography — long corridors, outdoor facilities — until they are taken into the shadowy basement. It is here that the stalker reigns supreme. He uses shock treatment on a patient who is getting the stalker’s number.
The most remarkable and unsettling moment in the film, however, is when the stalker confronts Foy in a padded cell he has consigned her to. The hopeless neurotic Foy has finally learned which buttons to push on her stalker, and summons up a manipulation to counter his. Without giving too much away the film climaxes with a battle between which manipulations will ultimately triumph. Foy, up to now too neurotic for the audience to root for, by movie’s end has the audience on her side.
This being a Soderbergh film there is more at stake than merely Foy’s fighting spirit. A noted leftist, Soderbergh reveals there is a conspiracy among the hospital staff motivated by greed. The motivation for this cabal revolves around the topicality of health insurance. In his hands, the hospital enriches itself by keeping the patients incarcerated and medicated until their health insurance runs out.
As with many of Soderbergh’s films, “UnSane” will not appeal to everyone. It is essentially an art house film that traffics in pulp melodrama. Still for those who want a film in which a psychologically damaged woman regains her spirit and actually battles the stalker who has preyed upon her, “UnSane” will satisfy.