Sometimes the right actor can make slight horror material work like gangbusters. Think how Vincent Price so often made lesser cuts of the genre seem like prime filet. Such is the case with Claire Foy and the new horror/thriller UNSANE. She elevates the clichés in this material that moviegoers have seen a thousand times before, that of the wronged woman incarcerated against her will. She’s a thousand miles away from her acclaimed portrayal as Queen Elizabeth on Netflix’s THE CROWN and this film should confirm that she is a talent who can play all kinds of material, even the lesser cuts.
Much is being made out of the fact that the film’s director Steven Soderbergh shot this film on an iPhone. (Albeit a fancy 7 model.) He’s a director who serves as his own cinematographer, and it’s impressive to know that he’s doing such, in addition to calling all the shots on set, and coaxing the best performances out of his cast. Still, even though the camera’s fish-eyed angles and ‘in-your-face’ close-ups add effective creepiness to the proceedings, the iPhone use is mostly gimmickry. Perhaps Soderbergh is trying to suggest that filmmaking needn’t be more complicated than grabbing your own cell and telling your story, but the lack of a professional camera is more hindering than helpful. The picture is grainy, and the color is often dulled to the point of distraction. (The whites of the eyes all look incredibly gray.) The iPhone usage story here also cannot mask the film’s inferior narrative.
The script starts out well with Foy’s character of businesswoman Sawyer Valentini demonstrating her strength as a go-getter seemingly in control of her life. She’s remarkably shrewd at her job and has recently reconnected with her mom (Amy Irving) after years in the wilderness. Sawyer is a touch brittle, still struggling to overcome bouts of paranoia brought on by recent history with a stalker. The bearded and bespectacled wimp David Strine (Joshua Leonard) fell for her when she helped his invalid father during his last months’ alive and he fell head over heels for her during that time. Upon her rejection of his advances, he went after with such velocity that Sawyer not only had to invoke a restraining order, she had to move to another city as well.
When Sawyer worries that she is imagining David is in the new city with her, the young woman visits a psychiatric facility to polish off some of the edges driving her fears. Unfortunately, the institution commits her for observation, as if determining someone is a danger to themselves and others could be diagnosed so rapidly. She's incarcerated for a week, placed in a room with half a dozen other patients that even ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST didn’t traffic in some 40 years ago. And her lack of rights and options only get worse from there.
All films require suspensions of disbelief, especially horror, but in this day and age, such a mental institution rings irrevocably wrong. Even if Sawyer did check herself into an institution and signed an agreement that inexplicably imprisoned her, she’d still have plenty of rights and outs to her predicament. She most certainly would not be treated with such overt skullduggery by administrators and the entire staff.
No one listens to her, the staff is belligerent and uncaring, and drugs are handed out like it’s milk at recess. These are hoary clichés from every incarcerated woman film from the past 50 plus years, be it Susan Hayward in 1958’s I WANT TO LIVE to Carol Lynley in 1965’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING. Yet, here are these older-than-the-hills tropes being shot with a cellphone to make it seem contemporary and modern. Sorry, but seeing every freckle in Foy’s face doesn’t make any of this clichéd portrayal of mental care seem even remotely realistic.
Arguably, the film never really recovers from here, yet Foy and Soderbergh do their damnedest to try and make this material work. Even when Sawyer is digging herself into a hole deeper and deeper, Foy still makes her sympathetic. And even though the film wants to play the “is she insane or not” ploy, Foy’s too smart to make us believe she’s crazy. Her large, expressive eyes may project abject vulnerability, but they do not convey anything close to insanity.
In fact, the script quickly does away with any question of her sanity by showing Sawyer exhibit shrewdness at every juncture. The story also showcases the return of David in the guise as a new orderly, and it's made abundantly clear almost instantly that Sawyer's fears are not in her head. Within a few scenes, the villain is whispering taunting asides at her, as well as tormenting the woman with stolen letters from her mom, and spiking her drugs. Wouldn’t there be at least a doctor around to control such matters and give Sawyer an opportunity to gain an audience? Instead, the film conveniently keeps any kind of authoritative presence other than cretin orderlies virtually offscreen.
Worse yet, the film too often fails to match the intelligence that Foy projects. For instance, why doesn’t Sawyer walk or run out of the facility at night? Within her legal battles combatting a stalker, wouldn’t she have more acumen when it comes to navigating or negotiating her rights as a patient, let alone dealing with David? The institution has to be a haunted house in its way, but the lack of guards, doctors, or anyone for that matter other than the scant set of patients, seems dunderheaded and lazy on the screenplay’s part.
Despite these flaws, UNSANE does manage to be fun for a lot of this up and down ride. Comic Jay Pharaoh plays Nate Hoffman, the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ patient whom she bonds with, and he’s terrific in the role. Hoffman has not only snuck in a cellphone that he loans to Sawyer, but he is kind, warm, and explains a lot of the exposition while making it sound conversational.
Amy Irving lends some dignity and grit too when she shows up as Sawyer’s concerned mother. Unfortunately, she’s brought on as more sacrificial lamb than protective mama bear. If she received a call from Sawyer that she was being held against her will, wouldn’t mom show up with the authorities? Again, characters act less than bright because the script hasn’t found a way for them to be thwarted even when they’re acting smart.
As David escalates his pursuit of Sawyer, the film spirals into something unseemly more than thrilling. The stalker turns into a supervillain, capable of outsmarting everyone in the institution, having access to anywhere he wants, and killing a number of people with too much ease. There is one long scene where Sawyer is being kept in a padded room when he comes to visit her. Her attempts at rational conversation seem utterly misplaced, but even when she finally finds a way to stab him later on, she doesn’t do an efficient job, and that enables him to rise from the dead like Jason Voorhees. Aren’t we past that cliché in horror? Isn’t it more than a little nutty to employ such a cornball trope, particularly from a filmmaker as sublime as Soderbergh?
UNSANE can be viewed as an economically shot, down and dirty chiller whose only desire is to provide some jumps and jolts at the Cineplex. Yet with such talent involved, more must be demanded. Foy and Soderbergh make a lot of it work, but the script needed an upgrade. Badly.