As a genre, horror is especially adept at taking advantage of film’s voyeuristic nature and creating an uncomfortable vicarious experience. And more than any genre, horror can hack apart an audience member’s conception of fear and flip it on its head. The genre can sow horror and terror where the was none, forcing the audience to see once benign situations in a more sinister light (or shadow).
Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, a film rooted in a young woman’s experience of being imprisoned in a mental asylum with her stalker, does precisely this. Unsane forces its audience to confront a premise that is scary for anyone, but for women especially. The film uses the negative cultural stereotypes we have of women and mental health to craft a film that recreates in lurid digital detail the discomfort and fear every woman has faced at some point in her life. It is a waking nightmare, less a work of fiction and more a worst case scenario of what happens when a man won’t take no for an answer.
Unsane is about Sawyer Valentin, a young woman who has upended her entire life to escape her stalker. Now that she has a new job and new apartment in a new city without any friends or family nearby, Sawyer finds herself in an emotionally raw state. She refuses to form friendships at work. She limits her dating life to casual hook-ups. She lies to her mother about her life. And she keeps seeing her stalker everywhere, even though she knows he couldn’t have followed her. So Sawyer goes to talk to a mental health professional about her problems, which goes well enough until she ends up committed for a week. She insists she’s not crazy, but her protests only convince the doctors of her mental instability. Even worse, she begins to see her stalker at the mental hospital, posing as one of the attendants. Is she crazy? Or has her stalker finally tracked her down?
Claire Foy as Sawyer is simply brilliant. If you’ve ever seen her on The Crown, you know she’s skilled at portraying the British stiff upper lip. But Foy has range. As Sawyer Valentin, she is just barely holding herself together under a cracking demeanor. She veers between being coldly professional, shallowly chipper, and unapologetically forward. She’s aggressive, angry, and afraid. For a good chunk of the film, you aren’t sure if Sawyer is crazy or not, which is due mostly to Foy’s undeniable skill. I loved watching her onscreen, and I thought she carried the movie. She’s one to watch.
Foy is, undoubtedly, the star of Unsane, but she isn’t the only great actor. Jay Pharaoh, of Saturday Night Live fame, is a pleasant surprise in his role as Sawyer’s fellow inmate and sarcastic friend who knows all the dirty secrets of the shady medical facility. He is also fun to watch, mainly because he gets to explore his dramatic side in one of Unsane’s more horrific scenes. His chemistry with Foy is a much-needed source of levity in the film, and their interactions serve to remind the audience of how effortless and fun flirting should be.
And Joshua Leonard, who plays David Strine, Claire’s alleged stalker, is terrifying. His performance is a study in pathetic neediness, unquestioned entitlement, toxic masculinity, and explosive anger. He’s the unholy hybrid of a Nice Guy and an incel subreddit. He is the embodiment of the relentless would-be suitor, fawning over Claire one minute and committing horrific violence the next. If only she would just accept his love, he would not have to be a murderer, gosh!
Certainly, they all had great material with which to work. The characterizations are consistent, strong, and nuanced throughout, giving even minor characters room to leave a mark on the story instead of merely existing as prop devices or set pieces.
In general, Unsane puts a fresh spin on the old horror trope of the young, attractive, but overly-brash young woman whose experiences are dismissed as generic “craziness” until it’s too late.
And women understand the horrifying realism of it all.
We have our own stories of Davids, who got frustrated when negging didn’t work on us, who catcalled us and then vomited a stream of profanities when his “compliments” were not acknowledged, who won’t stop staring at us across the office, and who developed an obsession and won’t accept the objective truth of the situation.
We’ve heard stories about the girl who rejected the guy stalking her, and the cops couldn’t do anything about it until he murdered her. We have all internalized the ways we must be prepared to drastically alter our lives to protect against a man who refuses to respect a decision not to date him.
Every woman at that screening knew how that works and how little is done about it.
Unsane refuses to whitewash or excuse David’s behavior, consistently presenting his pursuit of Sawyer as creepy and inappropriate. From the start, we see that Sawyer’s feelings of discomfort and apprehension are justifiable. In one striking scene, we learn the drastic steps Sawyer took to protect herself, all because one guy couldn’t take no for an answer.
That’s why, in my screening, the women seemed so much less affected than the men. Yes, the male members of the audience were appropriately repulsed and shocked, but they also laughed and giggled nervously at inappropriate moments. I suspected that many of the men in the audience resorted to that defense mechanism because they did not know how to handle their vicarious experience of Sawyer’s situation. They were not used to feeling that kind of fear.
A large part of that reaction is due to the societal expectation that stalking is largely a woman’s problem, one that is handled privately and with shame. Both men and women can be victims of stalking, though women are much more likely to experience stalking (according to the Stalking Resource Center, 6% of men have experienced stalking, while 15% of women have). On top of that, both men and women are conditioned to think of certain stalking behaviors as romantic and flattering, and encouraged to think of the stalker’s threatening behavior as simple “persistence.”
A major success of Unsane is demonstrating how that is not the case. The film forces its audience to confront the psychological toll stalking has on victims and how destructive it is to ignore women’s very real fears. It also demonstrates how that kind of violent, destructive male entitlement harms both woman and men, adding a new dimension to the paradigm that must be explored.
It is telling then that Unsane incorporates an incredible sub-plot of predatory health insurance. Comparing and contrasting the methods by which a stalker and a sophisticated insurance scam can gaslight victims, abuse personal rights, and manipulate legal institutions says a great deal about the demented incentive structures our society allows to persist.
The film’s cinematography underscores this point. I’ve always thought of cinematography as akin to syntax in a novel. Like bad writing, bad cinematography distracts and undermines the story. But great cinematography, like great writing, not only tells the story in a skillful way but enhances the thematic elements of the film.
Unsane was famously shot entirely on an iPhone. Lots of people had lots of opinions it, but I think it was an inspired choice. The limitations of the iPhone created the murky scenes, desaturated and oversaturated tones, and disoriented frames that Soderbergh clearly wanted.
In this day, almost everyone has a camera phone, which enables them to snap photos and take video of anything and everything whenever they wish. It also means the average person risks being photographed or recorded simply by leaving her house. Someone can capture your likeness with more ease and accuracy than ever before. And now we know what powerful corporations are doing with our data, all captured and mined from iPhones.
The iPhone was integral to the visual language of the film, using the frantic, lurid, distorted visual aesthetic to underscore both the mood of the film and supports a larger message about the intrusiveness of technology and abuse of autonomy.
Unfortunately, for all the pointed and unflinching examination of the systematic ways women are maligned and ignored, Unsane fell into a few tired old horror pitfalls.
For one, the pacing was uneven. For the first two acts, the film is a slow burn, and the measured pace works nicely to create an atmosphere of dread and tension. It was challenging to follow the slow-moving camera through empty hallways and harshly lit rooms because the audience is so afraid of what might appear on the screen. In the third act, however, the film seemed to sputter, and not in a way that reinforced Sawyer’s experience. It dragged down the film despite the heart-pounding climax.
Unsane’s villain also veered into tired Slasher territory, where the villain is impossibly smart, unbelievably efficient, and lucky as hell. He takes advantage of several large plot holes to torment Sawyer and eliminate anyone who tries to help her. David is already terrifying with his irrational pursuit of Sawyer and capacity for violence, yet Unsane insists on giving him near-prescient levels of stalker ability. Ultimately, this makes him a caricature and not realistic portrayal of a depraved stalker.
On the whole, Unsane captured the horror of being the canvas on which a man paints an entire narrative about “you” and how much “you” can give him. It made clear that, in such situations, the threat of what he will do to you if you deviate from his narrative lurks in the background. And Unsane demonstrated how minimizing the experiences of women can produce results just as terrible those threatening women.
The film’s timing couldn’t be more appropriate, especially when the #MeToo movement and the bravery of many victims of sexual intimidation and assault shed light on profoundly harmful human behaviors. I am glad that it was a difficult film to sit through and that so many people were made uncomfortable by what they saw. I hope they will learn something from the film.