Your life slips away from you, you know?
The tagline to Steven Soderbergh‘s Unsane reads as follows: “Is she or isn’t she?” Its context stems from Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) being presented as an unreliable narrator. She’s picked up her life and moved it from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape the troubles of her past—namely a stalker whose lack of boundaries instilled enough fear to make her see him in places he wasn’t. We understand this struggle is real due to a one-night stand ending with her scream after the man she brings home changes identity for a split-second into her assailant. She seeks out help, finds a counselor to speak with, and does believe a breakthrough can occur. But that optimism disappears upon discovering she’s been duped into committing herself to the psyche ward.
Did she or didn’t she, though? What if Sawyer only thinks she was duped, but really signed with full cognizance before another episode brought a fit of paranoid delusions? Is she an adjusted woman with understandable post-traumatic stress or a violently explosive personality ready to throw down with whomever gets in her way? And when she starts seeing that same predator in the face of a hospital orderly (Joshua Leonard), is her mind playing a trick? Has this yet unknown figure ignored his restraining order to find her across state lines or are her hallucinations growing more and more dangerous for herself and those around her? Eventually she calls her mother (Amy Irving) and reveals how she never told her about the stalker before. Did he ever exist?
These are the questions for which the tagline hints. These are the mysteries we hope Soderbergh will unravel in whatever experimental way the director sees fit. And considering he has chosen an iPhone 7 as his camera, the sky really is the limit as far as what his always-unique mind can think up. Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer‘s script doesn’t even have to be good as long as it possesses the latitude for him to have fun because his visuals and technological ingenuity can transcend the plot. The problem therefore arises when Soderbergh forgets to do anything. If he shoots this film on a cellphone but does nothing to prove it couldn’t have been shot any other way, it becomes a gimmick its problematic story cannot hide behind.
For all those hyperbolically exclaiming Unsane as a game-changer: go watch Tangerine. For those saying they had no clue about what might happen next: watch more suspense thrillers and better horror. I say these things because there’s absolutely nothing of value had from the experience put onscreen besides enjoying a highly effective performance from Foy. She’s giving this project more than it deserves because we do ultimately believe that she believes she may no longer have a grasp on reality. Unfortunately we don’t believe it ourselves as audience members. We don’t because Soderbergh very directly uses visual cues to reveal every string the script contains. As soon as you leave Sawyer’s vantage point, her role as unreliable narrator ceases. She becomes a character within a transparent plot.
The first quarter of the film is great because all we know is what Sawyer sees. Soderbergh introduces her delusions with immediacy and her paranoia with an authentic unease as the world literally closes in around her with the stroke of a pen. There’s a crazy malicious bunkmate in Juno Temple‘s Violet and a suspiciously calm voice of reason in the bed across the room (Jay Pharaoh‘s Nate Hoffman). The atmosphere is thick with uncertainty and Sawyer does snap more than once upon “seeing” her nightmare right in front of her face. But then we leave her behind. We start viewing what Nate does outside of her gaze. We’re made to watch conversations between hospital staff that she isn’t privy to knowing happened. The filmmakers show their cards.
Every potential for surprise disappears when this happens. Any maneuver to show a “twist” becomes a punch line because it seems as though the filmmakers still think it’s a twist. Sawyer’s sanity proves to be a red herring as the truth is exposed with matter-of-fact cinematic language despite the film continuing to falsely manufacture intrigue. So anytime something happens to make us want to question reality, we don’t because reality has been firmly established. Instead we’re made to endure obvious machinations that are either repetitive or redundant. It makes Leonard’s performance preposterous by pretending the gig isn’t up. It makes us wonder if Soderbergh is laughing, showing just how dumb some thrillers are by making his own even dumber. Why else would he distractedly give his BFF a cameo?
But he never fully leans into the silliness. He never overtly says he’s having a laugh at the expense of those who believe outlandishly clumsy social commentary (there’s a subplot about health agencies imprisoning patients to drain their insurance money) like this is earnestly hoping to spark change. That’s not to say Soderbergh didn’t have ample opportunity either. The film could have ended on a gloriously insane bit of hyper-violent nihilism to really put a cherry on top and yet it consciously holds back as though any of the reductive and sometimes offense depictions of mental illness and PTSD were to be seen as sympathetic rather than exploitative. Either Soderbergh chickened out or fell prey to his own delusion that this script was somehow bolder than it is.
 Claire Foy (center) stars as “Sawyer Valentini” in Steven Soderbergh’s UNSANE, a Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street release.
 Claire Foy (left) stars as Sawyer Valentini and Jay Pharoah (right) stars as Nate Hoffman in Steven Soderbergh’s UNSANE, a Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street release.
 Juno Temple stars as “Violet” in Steven Soderbergh’s UNSANE, a Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street release.