By Kim Hughes
A sort-of Girl, Interrupted by way of Fatal Attraction with a script indebted to M. Night Shyamalan, Unsane stars Claire Foy (Netflix’s The Crown) as the fabulously named Sawyer Valentini, a bright but troubled American woman. We know Sawyer is troubled because director Steven Soderbergh (yes, that Steven Soderbergh) lards his early scenes with peculiar camera angles, a technique more distracting that persuasive. In any case, Sawyer’s ungainly attempt at a one-night stand confirms our girl’s anguish while driving her, apparently, to confront her demons.
Next thing we know, Sawyer is spilling her guts to a seemingly sympathetic counsellor, who breezily instructs her to fill out some paperwork to continue treatment. Alas, our Sawyer isn’t a big reader of small print, and before she knows it, she has accidentally committed herself to a mental health institution. Just like that, and without so much as a physical exam or a doctor’s referral.
All manner of protestations fail to liberate Sawyer from her unfortunate clerical error, and the hard-ass staff is having none of her shenanigans about calling the cops. Indeed, they are down with the cops. But more on the nefarious institution (with its obvious debt to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) later. For now, Sawyer is stuck sleeping in a dorm with a bunch of loony-bin caricatures like Juno Temple (rocking cornrows for some reason) as the conspicuously loopy troublemaker dedicated to making Sawyer’s precarious life even more miserable.
Luckily, the dorm in the asylum is co-ed (as they are in 2018), with male and female patients all sleeping together in one giant room, so Sawyer’s path to beacon of sanity Nate (SNL alum Jay Pharoah) is shortened considerably. Still, fights happen, and food gets thrown because the best way to prove your sanity to scowling overlords is to be randomly violent and spontaneously profane.
Then, wham! Sawyer’s stalker (Joshua Leonard), the ostensible source of her mental fragility, suddenly shows up wearing institutional whites and handing out meds. That cheeky little pip got a job at the asylum just to be near his beloved Sawyer! Even though no one, notably Sawyer, knew she was heading there for an extended stay. Of course, no one believes Sawyer when she hollers about this deception because it’s a PATENTLY RIDICULOUS PREMISE EVEN TO THE MENTALLY ILL. Unless… the stalker is just an elaborate illusion? Oh, the intrigue.
Around this point, the plot expands to posit that the institution holding Claire is designed to part patients with their hard-eared insurance money, so Claire’s actual mental stability — already perceived as debatable owing to the stalker with the miracle CV and Herculean background check dodge — is further thrown into question. Or maybe… I dunno, whatever. And yet, if Sawyer is OK, and her Mom (Amy Irving) believes she’s OK and Nate is guiding her on how to beat the system by acting OK, why does she keep acting out?
Is the money-grubbing institution with the sloppy hiring protocols actually trying to drive her mad to milk more insurance money from her employer who somehow didn’t fire her for abruptly disappearing without so much as a text about why she isn’t coming into the office?
Sigh. Then people start dying in all sorts of indescribably senseless ways because… Unsane.
Soderbergh’s presumed intent — to conjure for his audience the terrifyingly kaleidoscopic world consuming Sawyer — is muddled on one hand by endless implausibility and on the other by the film’s unwillingness to just flat-out go for it.
If Sawyer is nuts, why not make her 100 percent batshit crazy? Maybe it’s all allegorical, as has been suggested by sager minds than mine. Either way, by the time we arrive at Unsane’s Shyamalan-ian twist ending, we’re just too brow-beaten by preposterousness to care.
Unsane. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Amy Irving and Juno Temple. Opens wide March 23.