First, the good news. There’s something exhilarating about an inventive filmmaker who, with nothing left to prove, keeps at it, always ready to try something new. That’s what director Steven Soderbergh does in Unsane, and he gives the picture a jumpy energy that comes close to covering up the bad news: Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script is a boilerplate schlock thriller.
Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a tough-talking data analyst at a big-city bank, new on the job but good enough to get a thinly veiled come-on from her boss. We see her in a bar, completing a social-media hookup by telling the guy this is going to be a simple one-night stand, after which he’s never to contact her again. He agrees, but back at her apartment, some frantic flashback sends her fleeing to the bathroom, locking the door and trembling, and him retreating in confusion.
The next day, Sawyer seeks help from a clinical professional for her trauma, telling a tale of being a stalker’s victim, getting restraining orders, changing phone numbers and emails, finally moving from Boston to Pennsylvania, but still seeing her stalker everywhere she looks.
The sympathetic therapist induces Sawyer to sign some “routine paperwork.” Too late, Sawyer realizes she has unwittingly committed herself for observation in a “behavioral center” that makes the booby-hatch in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look like a French Riviera timeshare. Worse, Sawyer is convinced that her stalker has followed her even this far, masquerading as the mild-mannered male nurse who administers the inmates’ daily meds (Joshua Leonard). Desperate to the point of seeming (or being) unhinged, Sawyer gives a master class in What Not to Do When Everybody Already Thinks You’re Crazy.
More good news: Claire Foy harrowingly sheds the regal demeanor of her breakthrough role as Elizabeth II in TV’s The Crown. In her hands, Sawyer is a borderline basket case who keeps us wondering exactly which side of the border she’s on. Adding to the disorientation, Soderbergh has shot the movie with iPhone cameras, serving as his own cinematographer (under the alias Peter Andrews) and editor (aka Mary Ann Bernard). This technique makes Sawyer’s world look at once wide-angle (when she reaches for a coffee cup near the camera, her arm suddenly looks seven feet long) and claustrophobic (figures seem flattened and jammed together, lit with a chilly green cast). Is this woman really sane, or is she dragging us down the rabbit hole with her?
Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which may have been a partial inspiration), Unsane tips its hand way too soon. Critics are urged not to reveal “characters’ secrets,” so I won’t.
Although Soderbergh’s visuals and Foy’s jittery performance carry us far, Unsane falls an early victim to wait-a-minute-that-doesn’t-make-sense syndrome. It’s okay if that hits you on the way home from the theater, but it’s fatal if it comes before the movie’s even halfway over.
Soderbergh and Claire Foy are, essentially, putting lipstick on a pig—but for a while, it’s a pretty nifty shade of red.