Unsane is ... Unreal

Unsane (2018)

Rated R: For Disturbing Themes, Language, Minimal Blood, and Violence

Running Time: 98 minutes (1 hour and 38 minutes)

Genre/s: Horror, Thriller

Released on March 23, 2018 (US Release Date; Available for Worldwide Viewing)

Presented by Regency Enterprises, Extension 765, Bleecker Street, Fingerprint Releasing, and Twentieth Century Fox

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writers: Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer


  • Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini
  • Joshua Leonard as David Strine / George Shaw
  • Jay Pharaoh as Nate Hoffman
  • Juno Temple as Violet
  • Aimee Mullins as Ashley Brighterhouse
  • Amy Irving as Angela Valentini

"Help isn't just one call away." When this film was promoted that it will be the first flick to be shot entirely on a cellphone, I actually thought that it was some sort of bad publicity. But then I looked at who the director was, and it was none other than one of the most influential experimental filmmakers of this generation: Steven Soderbergh. In Unsane, Soderbergh and company examine the theme of helplessness, in a simple yet completely immersive way.

Here, Sawyer Valentini, played by Foy (First Man) checks-in to a psychiatric hospital being run by Ashley Brighterhouse, played by Mullins (World Trade Center). This is due to an experience with a stalker named David Strine, played by Leonard (The Blair Witch Project) left her mentally scarred. What was supposed to be a simple checkup eventually descends into a nightmare when she is forced to stay in the hospital for a week. Trapped and forced to interact with other mental patients such as Violet, played by Temple (Maleficent) and Nate Hoffman, played by Pharaoh (Top Five), Sawyer's only hope lies outside the facility: her mother Angela, played by Irving (Traffic).

Most horror movies feature supernatural threats to evoke a sense of dread, including haunted houses and sinister spirits from the beyond. In Unsane's case, however, we are reminded that ghosts and ghouls are not the only things in this world that would lead our figures of salvation to fail. "Realism" is the word, and here, we get to see how even the most trusted figures in society would fail to help us in our most dire moments, or how those people or institutions would lead to failure by external forces. This recurring theme is presented in a very subtle way that manages to leave quite an impression on viewers upon further analysis.

The core of the story revolves around a woman being held captive in a mental hospital. Though it might sound that this could be a set-up for a paranormal event taking shape, we eventually realize that the reason as to why this is so is that the hospital is aiming to have her health insurance pay for her stay, so that the administration would be able to gain more money. Indeed, the twist itself might be as simplistic as one might expect, but nevertheless the execution and the characters made the twist all the more effective. In addition, the very idea that an institution, much less a hospital would even bother to scam their patients for additional profit is chilling in its own right, as this is a type of situation that could happen to anybody (which is made more terrifying by the idea that a stalker works in that facility).

The character of Sawyer Valentini, anchored by Foy with magnetic sympathy, represents the idea of a person seeking help wherever and whenever she can. Complete with an understandable background pertaining to her seemingly irrational actions, we see Sawyer always asking for help, either to the hospital itself, to the charismatic Jay Pharaoh's Nate Hoffman, who is actually an undercover journalist working to expose the crimes of the administration, to her mother, or to the police. We see Sawyer clinging on to every bit of hope that she can get. It should also be noted that in most cases she asks for help with the use of a cellphone. However, despite her best efforts, all are inevitably unable to help her. Help really is not just a call away.

Serving as the foil for the hope-searching Sawyer is the despair-ridden David Strine, masquerading as a recently murdered employee named "George Shaw," and is played by Leonard with nigh-perfect creepiness appeal. Strine's characterization, which illustrates the antagonist as a desperate hopeless romantic who is dangerously oblivious to the truth as to what love really is not only makes him a complex villain, but also a relatively relatable one that allows for the film's theme to be understood further. The phone motif once again reveals itself once in Strine's story, wherein he aggressively texts Sawyer for affections to the point of alienation. The stark difference between the two characters is revealed in the fact that Strine simply concluded that Sawyer has all of his hopes and dreams.

Nate also uses a phone, as he frequently and secretly phones his editor about updates on his assignment, while also offering Sawyer a chance to communicate with the outside world. To a lesser extent, the hospital's head Ashley Brighterhouse, played with some level of typical business magnate devilish appeal from Mullins, also asks her corrupt colleagues in the management staff to keep the secrets uncovered by Nate buried. Angela also pleads the police to help her daughter, whom also phoned the authorities prior to Angela asking. Much like Sawyer, all of them experience the failure of the saviors, as Nate is killed by Strine before exposing the truth, Ashley is arrested by the officers she attempted to manipulate, and Angela is murdered also by Strine prior to even getting the chance to amass an "army" to help Sawyer.

The film's exclusive use of cellular devices not only serve as the film's primary draw, but it also, in a sense, serves as an allegorical extension of the flick's theme of pointless communication. As I have said before, I initially had my doubts about the use of iPhone 7 Pluses for the production, and it was partially evident in certain scenes when the audio might be distorted (Sawyer's discussion about the hospital plan was almost inaudible for me), and the obvious simplistic camera quality in most scenes. However, upon closer inspection, the simplistic quality of the shots does elevate the realistic atmosphere further. With the less grandiose color grading and lighting, audiences are much more engaged with the tension within, thanks to a more sensory type of presentation. Soderbergh's trademark use of the color blue for criminality (the forest and solitary confinement scenes) and yellow for warmth (morning and in the low-security halls of the hospital) is also made useful here, and it further gives the movie a distinctive aesthetic. (It also helps that Soderbergh himself even composed the amazing score, and edited the film in different pseudonyms.)

Upon realizing that help will almost never really come for her, with even earlier flashbacks with a Detective Ferguson, played by Matt Damon (The Bourne Franchise), who consults Sawyer on what to do to prevent Strine from further harassing her indicating that his style of help failed, Sawyer decided to become independent and fight back. With feminist overtones more apparent, Sawyer, with a brilliant monologue delivered by Foy, berates Strine for his crimes, which eventually leads to Sawyer exploiting Strine's disturbing obsession to goad him into leading Juno Temple's intriguing Violet to the basement and retrieve her weapon. Even by the time Sawyer kills Strine, we are left to wonder that, even if she did manage to help herself, audiences are left to a seemingly ambiguous ending, and an overall fun and exciting thriller with artistic merit.

In all honesty, one does not simply have to finish writing the synopsis of this story in order to know how the plot ends, and yes, cliches are bound to be encountered, and its simplistic nature could disappoint some who truly wish for the more paranormal endeavor, but the unique visual style and execution help Unsane to stand on its own two feet. Plus, with a fully realized roster of characters and an intriguing artistic message behind the craft, and a brilliant and innovative filmmaking breakthrough with the use of phones, this is definitely more than just an average B-movie with a more or less so-so plot. There is beauty in simplicity, after all. I hereby grant this film a score of 19/25 (Pleasant Entertainment).

Wow, I honestly did not know what I was expecting when I finally got to watch this on basic cable. I have to say. I was never really much of a fan of Soderbergh's filmography before, namely due to me still not being able to watch more than a quarter of his films. Thanks to this, and one funny and quirky movie known as Logan Lucky, I am definitely looking forward to see more of his illustrious works, and see how else he can innovate the industry a whole lot more. Perhaps before leaving, do check-out this small interview of Steven Soderbergh, where he discusses more about Unsane. Stay tuned for more Dateline Movies!


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