UNSANE (2018), the latest movie by acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, is un—.
Yeah, I know. A movie with the title UNSANE is just begging for some word play with “un” words. Unwatchable. unlikable. Unbelievable. Unusual. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Truth is, UNSANE is none of these things.
It is rather unsophisticated, though, for a psychological thriller.
And yes it is rather unbelievable at times.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is trying to make the best of her life, but she’s not having an easy time of it. She’s doing well at her job, receiving glowing praise from her male boss, but when he suggests she join him for a weekend trip to a major business event, she doesn’t like the vibes she’s receiving and declines the offer. On a date, she encourages intimacy early on, but later, when she brings the guy back to her apartment, she pushes him away and becomes physically ill.
Yup, Sawyer has some problems, and we learn that she has moved far away from home to get away from a man who was stalking her. It was such a frightening experience, it has left her scarred emotionally and psychologically. She decides to seek out help. She visits a psychologist and during the interview admits she has had suicidal thoughts in the past. She signs some papers agreeing to treatment but doesn’t realize she has just involuntarily signed herself into a mental institution. The next thing she knows, Sawyer finds herself inside a setting right out of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1976).
Then, to make matters worse, she sees the man who had been stalking her now working at the institution as an orderly going by the new name of David Strine (Joshua Leonard). Of course, she flips out, believing that this man has followed her here to the institution. Or, is this all in her head?
That’s the question, or at least one of the questions, that is supposed to be driving the plot to UNSANE along, but the problem is, the film answers this question way too early, and once it’s answered, the film is far less fun.
I have to say, for the most part, I was really enjoying watching UNSANE, and the biggest reason was the performance by Claire Foy in the lead role as Sawyer Valentini. Foy is in nearly every scene in this one, and she is more than up to the task of carrying this movie on her shoulders. She does a fantastic job. At times, she shows us a Sawyer who is in control and not in need of medical intervention, but most of the time we see her angry and unhinged, doing nothing to support her argument that she doesn’t need help.
And Foy is not helped by the script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, which is by far the weakest part of this thriller. Take the main premise, for example. Please. (Drum Beat.)
It’s so painfully obvious early on when Sawyer is signing those papers that she’s about to be involuntarily committed. She misses one obvious sign after another, to the point where for me it was completely unbelievable that she wouldn’t realize immediately that something is wrong. She’s there for just an interview, a conversation, and she finds herself being led into a facility where the bedrooms are in full view, and she doesn’t stop to question why she’s being taken back there? Plus, signing the paper in the first place seems like such a careless thing to do. Then there’s the staff which are so evasive it’s clear they are trying to trick Sawyer into being committed. Is this how hospitals work? I hope not.
So, the next logical thought is this is going to be a sinister hospital, and because of Foy’s performance I was more than happy to go along for the ride and see where this story and sinister hospital would take me. The problem is it took me in completely predictable directions that grew more unbelievable as they became known. The situations also aren’t very clever or innovative. The basic plot point, once revealed, and it’s revealed early on, is rather mundane. Foy’s performance deserves a better story than this.
The rest of the cast is very good, so Foy is certainly not going this one alone. I was particularly impressed by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alum Jay Pharoah as fellow patient Nate Hoffman. Nate is the voice of reason inside the institution, and his friendship with Sawyer is one of the only things she can rely on, which she does more and more as she becomes more desperate. But there’s a plot twist involving his character which doesn’t really do much for the film nor is it all that believable. But Pharoah is very good in the role, and when he and Foy are on-screen, the film is most watchable.
Joshua Leonard as the “is he really there or not?” stalker David Strine is okay, but he’s really limited by a script that pretty much makes him the most ridiculous and unbelievable character in the movie.
Juno Temple is memorable as Violet, a rather volatile patient who gets under Sawyer’s skin immediately, and the two fight constantly.
And Amy Irving, who I haven’t seen in a movie in a very long time, appears as Sawyer’s mother Angela. Her screen time is brief, but she manages to get in a couple of noteworthy scenes in what ends up being a very thankless role.
Steven Soderbergh is a talented director whose films are often hit or miss. His previous film, the quirky comedy LOGAN LUCKY (2017) starring Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum, I liked a lot, but his two prior thrillers, SIDE EFFECTS (2013) and CONTAGION (2011), I was lukewarm to. And I’ve never been a big fan of his OCEAN’S movies. But going all the way back to SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989), and moving on through his career, more often than not his films are hits. That being said, I’d place UNSANE more in the “miss” category.
The potential was there. A troubled young woman gets involuntarily admitted to an institution seems like the perfect premise for a hard-hitting thriller, but it’s not. The institution takes a back seat to the stalker storyline which is simply incredulous. Likewise, the other patients are hardly developed, and what could have been a thought-provoking thriller is reduced to a by-the-numbers melodrama not any better than a standard soap opera plot of yesteryear.
One plot point that does work is the storyline that the hospital admits Sawyer and will keep her for seven days because that’s the length of time her medical insurance will pay for her stay. After that, she’ll be released, the point being that the only reason the hospital admitted her in the first place was because of the business transaction with the insurance company, that it knew it would be paid. That’s one plot point, whether true or not, I certainly could believe.
And Soderbergh tries his darndest to lift this thriller above typical standard fare. There’s some innovative camera work, especially late in the game during a chase through the woods, but it’s certainly not enough to make up for the weak storyline. And then there’s the fact that he shot this film on an iphone. Interesting, but it didn’t help story all that much.
UNSANE also isn’t much of a thriller. It’s rated R but isn’t all that violent, bloody, or suspenseful. It’s mostly rated R for language, as Sawyer lets the expletives fly on numerous occasions.
Claire Foy’s performance as wronged patient Saywer Valentini is the best part of this movie, followed closely by a strong supporting performance by Jay Pharoah as fellow patient Nate Hoffman, who becomes Sawyer’s friend.
But the story is so weak and blatantly predictable that the bottom line is for a suspense thriller, UNSANE is unfun and unscary.
In short, UNSANE is unoriginal, unmoving and understandably underwhelming.
It’s unimaginably unimaginative.