Soderbergh’s Film Is “Unsane”

Maybe because I knew that the word “unsane” was uncorrect, I decided to see what other aberrations Steven Soderbergh could come up with. The picture he directed, photographed, and edited is called “Unsane,” and so it is — in a very frightening way.

Claire Foy (an English actress best known in America for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in “The Crown”) plays a bright young businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini who has recently moved from Boston to Philadelphia to get away from a creepy young man who had been stalking her for two years.

When her new boss, a creepy older man, suggests that she go with him to a conference, she realizes that she needs to get some help in dealing with the anxiety she still feels from the trauma of having been the victim of a persistent stalker.

At a gathering of women with a variety of problems, she is told about a local institution whose psychiatrists will talk with her and help her overcome her fears. Since the institution is so highly recommended, she drops by to set up a meeting with one of the doctors. Instead, she is confronted by a domineering nurse who demands that she strip so that her body can be examined for marks and bruises. Her handbag is also “stripped” of its phone and all its other devices and valuables and, clad only in a hospital gown, she is ushered into a meeting with the head of the institution, where she is subjected to a prolonged personal interview.

Then she undergoes a session with a nasty secretary who has her sign a bundle of “routine” forms before she is finally introduced to the psychiatrist who reads from the notes taken by the two previous interviewers and interprets them as indicating that she needs to be admitted to the hospital for seven days. When she objects she is confronted by the “routine forms” she had signed without reading and discovers that she had voluntarily agreed to be institutionalized.

Of course she has been fighting and hollering and trying to leave, but she is unable to and eventually is carried by a couple of thuggish attendants into a large dormitory filled with mental patients, both male and female. In her efforts to escape she slaps and punches her abusers and is subdued by a needle thrust into her arm.

And finally, the ultimate horror: her stalker, David Shrine (a menacing Joshua Leonard) has followed her to Philadelphia and acquired a job in this very institution. From this point on, the film becomes even more nerve-wracking, with a chill a minute.

One of the most dizzying scenes comes when Shrine includes in her daily allotment of pills a new pill that sends her on a mad rampage. She throws chairs around and suddenly begins to whirl as multiple images of her face overlap and spin onscreen.

This is Soderbergh having a little fun. He has shot this entire film on an iPhone, presumably to see how it would turn out. And as the audience is aware of this innovation, they are also interested in seeing how it turns out. It’s a little subdued in the beginning, and sometimes a tad blurry, but after a few minutes it is so sharp and clear that you forget all about the process. And despite the grimness of the subject matter, you can’t help but be impressed by this bold adventure.

And the story, written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Green, continues with chases through the night-darkened woods, time spent in solitary confinement in a blue-padded room, a visit from Sawyer’s mother (a still beautiful Amy Irving), a possible murder or two, and a surprise cameo by Matt Damon.

All in all, an oddly satisfying film, if you like horror and mayhem. It opened on March 23rd in Los Angeles and is probably screening right now at a theater near you.