While Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Unsane, is undeniably schlocky, Soderbergh is one of those filmmakers who can lean into trash and come up with something with actual heft (another member of this club is Jeremy Saulnier). Working from a script from Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer—the duo’s last credit is Jackie Chan’s 2010 caper The Spy Next Door and they are also responsible for the Larry the Cable Guy movie, so this is a change of gear—Soderbergh keeps Unsane as stripped down and simple as possible. There is a strong streak of Hitchcock in Unsane, particularly of the Rear Window flavor, with the “did this actually happen or is the character imagining it” plot, but generally Soderbergh isn’t interested in teasing delusion versus reality. Unsane is relatively straightforward, which makes it increasingly harder to watch.

The interestingly named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, giving a sense of what she might do with Lisbeth Salander) has relocated to a new city and is having some sort of anxiety issue. After a date ends badly, she makes an appointment to see a counselor at a nearby health facility. Her appointment goes well, she fills out a stack of forms which she’s told are “routine”. Still, she does not read them, and at this point I started wincing. Sawyer is less a whole character and more a pile of behaviors, particularly stereotypically female behaviors such as deference, conciliation, and remorse. Though at first she seems bold, Sawyer still has ingrained social behaviors that lead her not to question authority, such as the therapist and nurse who reassure her the forms she’s filling out are totally normal.
Except they aren’t. Unwittingly—BECAUSE SHE DIDN’T READ—Sawyer signed a form for a voluntary twenty-four hour hold. During her appointment, her therapist brought up suicide, and Sawyer gave a pretty standard response for someone who has clearly been through a trauma and is now experiencing anxiety, at the very least, as a result. But the health facility used it to facilitate an insurance scam in which they keep commit people until their insurance runs out. (Does this really happen? God I hope not, but it did ring a bell with all the news about for-profit prisons.) So basically Sawyer ends up toughing out a week in a psych ward, at which point her insurance will stop paying and she’ll be released. She finds all this out from a fellow…inmate?...named Nate (Jay Pharoah, in a career-revising performance). He is clearly an undercover journalist working on a story, and the way the movie treats him is ultimately disappointing.
But it gets everything about Sawyer right. Not as a person, but as an archetype for female behavior, particularly when societal pressures are in play. Every time Sawyer attempts to fight back, she is punished. When she says one of the nurses is her stalker, David (Joshua Leonard, Togetherness), of course no one believes her. Unsane doesn’t really play that game with viewers, but Sawyer is living in a world where nothing she says carries any weight, and nothing she does actually helps her situation.

Technically this is a psychological thriller, women might find it more along the lines of psychological torture porn. At a certain point, Unsane becomes very hard to watch because Sawyer’s struggle for believability is all too familiar to women. Her circumstance is extreme, but the metaphor works. She is marginalized, her authority undermined from the beginning. Her certainty is worth less than a man’s. The police are no help when she is in distress, her doctor can barely be buggered to get off the phone when he is meeting with her, and he definitely doesn’t take her concerns seriously. (The doctor thing is especially grating as women are more likely to be disregarded during medical emergencies and have their pain underestimated by doctors.) No one LISTENS, until the plot spins out so wildly as to become farcical, except it isn’t. Unsane never becomes silly because it is always grounded in the fundamental survivalism all women learn—no one is listening, no one will help you. You don’t matter.
Unsane was shot on an iPhone (with Soderbergh acting as his own cinematographer), which is basically equivalent to the look of early 2000s digital cameras. That gives it a kind of throw-back feel—it seems like the kind of movie you’d pull off the dollar rental shelf, back when those were still a thing. (Jesus I’m old.) That sense of era-dislocation actually enhances the film thematically, as it drives home the unfortunately never-ending and depressingly timeless story about how the whole world is a potential threat to women, and even the smallest interactions can be loaded with unbearable consequences.