Written by Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Sawyer Valentini has recently made a big move away from her home in Boston. The circumstances that led her to this decision was the persistent stalking by an acquaintance. The trauma of this experience leads Sawyer into seeing this man everywhere she turns. It reaches such a point of distress that she books an appointment to visit a counselor at the Highland Creek Behavior Center. After a brief and productive meeting with a therapist, Sawyer is saddled with filling out some extra paperwork. Before she realizes, Sawyer has voluntarily checked herself into the center for a 24 hour period. This causes her to get physical with fellow patients and staff leading to an extension of a week. And then she begins seeing her stalker around the mental hospital. Is this her mind genuinely fracturing or something much more insidious?
I went into Unsane with patient expectations, but I should stop doing that when it comes to Steven Soderbergh’s films. I think because he doesn’t adhere to the traits of many in the auteur camp I often forget what a great director he indeed is. Soderbergh doesn’t have a preferred form or technique in his filmmaking and makes such varied pictures. For Unsane, he gave himself the challenge of filming the entire movie on an iPhone. Using a variety of lenses and harnesses he gives us a very visceral delve into Sawyer’s splintering psyche. There is a scene where she has been given the wrong medication, and her subsequent lashing out is done such palpable psychedelic fury. Soderbergh overlays both a back view and front view of her head as the camera is attached to her from behind. The room becomes an incomprehensible blur.
I wasn’t familiar with Claire Foy before this picture and was impressed with how she takes on a considerably tricky role. She manages to find a place where she can emphasize the manic nature of Sawyer’s mental state but not come across as having completely lost touch with reality. She is also a nasty, cruel person but the film wants us to understand that as bad as she treats others, she is still a person who deserves to be treated with basic human dignity. Her abrasive nature ends up being a benefit because she eventually deals with her circumstances by using that steely coldness towards others to escape. I don’t expect you can walk away from the film and say Sawyer was a saint of a character. The film name drops The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, a book that highlights the idea that “niceness” is a learned skill, not a default mode of being.
This leads to the film’s overarching relevance in our modern times. As the issue of harassment towards women becomes a broader and more nuanced conversation, we have to talk about the expectation of behavior from women. There is a trend right now in Hollywood to make every female lead a saintly, heroic figure. But in trying to right the wrongs in female portrayals on film we’re creating a just as bland landscape of characters, only on the other end of the spectrum. Complexity is the actual solution to representation. One dimensional characters don’t carry the emotional weight that a well written and complicated character does. Sawyer puts another female patient in a very questionable situation, and it doesn’t go well. But this adds to the conversation we should have about her actions when the film concludes. It makes Sawyer a fully developed character with strengths and flaws. It makes her human, which should be the goal of expanding representation in cinema.