There are two movies at play in Unsane, a psycho-thriller with the rare conviction to tackle two pressing issues in one go. Screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer certainly have a lot on their minds, at first a cautionary tale about the ominously predatorial nature of the mental health care system and then the tale of a woman and her stalker. The film features the strong start suggested by the first of those two stories, and director Steven Soderbergh chooses a unique representational method with which to tell it: He shoots the action with a smartphone (the iPhone 7 Plus, for those who like such trivia).
The choice was an effective one, too, as the sheen of the film is the sickly mustard yellow of a psych ward residence. Sawyer (Claire Foy) is an associate at some nameless company. She's a relatively recent hire, fleeing the activity of a stalker and still uneasy around other people. To top it all off, she sees her stalker, David (Joshua Leonard), everywhere - in the face of a man she brings home from the bar, in the halls at work, on the street. She seeks help with a clinic whose representative is more than happy to hear her out. It's counseling she needs after a few hellish years and a sudden relocation.
Immediately, everything goes horribly wrong. Upon signing a document that she believes is an agreement to come in again to discuss future sessions, she is admitted involuntarily into a ward with several other inmates (include Jay Pharaoh as Nate, who is overcoming an opioid addiction, and Juno Temple as Violet, who keeps calling Sawyer "Allison" for some reason). No one believes that she has been involuntarily admitted for a horrifying reason: She signed away her ability to be removed from the facility. Worse, a few apparently calculated scenes of violence later, the 24 hours stretches into a week.
All of this is fittingly tense and unnerving, made more so by the cinematography (performed, as usual, by Soderbergh under an alias, as with the precise editing) and the music score (whose composer goes uncredited). It would be more than enough for the director and screenwriters simply to go down this path of resistance, as Sawyer calls in her mother (played by Amy Irving), who promises to bring the cavalry and learns why being a mother is an occupational hazard. The problems in the storytelling arise with the intrusion of an orderly, who bears a remarkable resemblance to David, into Sawyer's fight to escape the hospital.
Almost immediately, the surprises in the narrative screech to a halt as the screenplay repeatedly gives us the expected. A flashback in which a detective (played by an uncredited Soderbergh regular) advises Sawyer on the ridiculous number of steps she can use to avoid David offers a bit of insight into the gravity of the situation (Indeed, Foy's performance dominates the movie in the way she conveys unbridled terror). Otherwise, Unsane becomes a stalk-and-kill, cat-and-mouse scenario, in which every other character within the facility becomes a cog in the plot's machinations. The result is a movie that unnerves with its set-up and, almost inevitably, frustrates with its follow-through.
Claire Foy (Sawyer), Joshua Leonard (David), Jay Pharoah (Nate), Juno Temple (Violet), Amy Irving (Angela), Gibson Frazier (Dr. Hawthorne), Polly McKie (Nurse Boles), Sarah Stiles (Jill), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Counselor).
Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer.
Rated R (disturbing behavior, violence, language, sex references).
Released on March 23, 2018.