The worst stalker nightmare
So Steven Soderbergh has gone and went a low budget indie thriller in between hobnobing with tons his famous friends. And I mean really low budget, as the director opted to shoot an entire feature length film on an iPhone 7. Is there a purpose to shooting on a cheap camera? Not in any way that affects a story too much the way found footage usually works. Instead, it’s an opportunity for Soderbergh and his cinematographers to try out a variety of camera angles in creating a tense psychological thriller.
So we follow Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a woman who has moved away from her friends and family in Boston to a new city after she was haunted by an obsessive stalker named David (Joshua Leonard). However, even though she has changed her phone number, emails, address and job; she still finds herself haunted by David everywhere she goes to the point she is hallucinating him in places he couldn’t possibly be. Sawyer decides to try seeking help from a stalker support group at a mental facility, but after blindly signing multiple documents she finds herself involuntarily committed to the facility for a whole week. While she demands to be released, she finds David to be working as a therapist in this very facility. But is she really being hounded by her stalker or is she truly losing her mind?
Much props are owed to Claire Foy for capturing what it’s like to be harassed and feel like your losing your sanity by being harassed day in and day out. So much so that I think some women will find this performance a little too realistic, and feel every bit of terror that she experiences at the hands of her stalker. However, both men and women would likely be terrified of the other terror the protagonist has to deal with, that is being involuntarily committed to a mental institution, as the film takes great pains to demonstrate some major paranoia and claustrophobia surrounding this situation. But as scary as this situation is, I couldn’t help but ponder the legality of it all considering the fact that my attorney senses began tingling.
At least in my State of Florida (cue the jokes), we have something called the “Baker Act,” which does in fact allow involuntary commitment of individuals by judges, law enforcement, physicians and mental health professionals for up to 72 hours. It’s also widely criticized both for violating individual rights and for not being adequate enough to keep certain individuals away from society, as many people use Baker Act to restrain individuals for a small period of time and no follow up is ever completed either because involuntary commitment wasn’t necessary to begin with or the law doesn’t bother to help those that genuinely need commitment. There’s a ton of legal, ethical and moral issues to discuss when it comes to this topic; and Unsane has jack shit to say about this issue but use it as a boogeyman.
The reason I’m frustrated by this is because the movie takes its time to establish the medical facility as committing multiple abuses in keeping not only Sawyer there but other patients as well. Unsane demonstrates that the facility is running an insurance scam by taking advantage of various involuntary commitment laws, and such devices do clearly exist in the United States so I was hoping the film would take as much time to accurately explore such problems. Instead, the film decides to show off other mental hospital abuses ripped right from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; one of the most iconic movies in its depiction of these facilities in the United States, but one that has been also been criticized in fear mongering among the masses. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this issue, but I’m only paying so much attention to it since Unsane walks you through the process of Sawyer getting committed with some dodgy paperwork and major police oversight, that it seemed thoughtful of trying to be as accurate as possible.
But while the business concerning involuntary commitment may be hit or miss, the stalking aspect is far more accurately portrayed. The character of David is positively menacing and he’s made all the more disturbing by how he speaks to Sawyer as a “protector” and a “romantic,” which is pretty accurate way to show the mental gymnastics stalkers pull as they stalk their targets. Incidentally, this is where Joshua Leonard appears to me as one of the creepiest performances I’ve ever seen since Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. It’s the soft-spoken demeanor as he describes the fantastical and uber-unrealistic “love” between his and Claire Foy’s character that makes your skin crawl every time he opens his mouth. It was also a nice touch that you, the audience, are unsure if the stalker is actually there in the facility as the film took careful steps to establish that your protagonist had a history of hallucinating her oppressor in multiple places and even taking the place of people she knows couldn’t be connected to David. The whole set up is great in reinforcing the paranoia that Sawyer feels in the audience themselves, and rooting for Sawyer for trying to find a way out of this dreadful situation.
The rest of the supporting cast from Juno Temple to Jay Pharoah to Amy Irving also do a solid job in complimenting Sawyer’s journey as well as they each demonstrate different levels of support for our protagonist as they are each systemically removed by David’s psychotic quest. All of the performances (including a neat cameo by Matt Damon) sell you on the grounded absurdity of this movie, and help keep the film from going off the rails when it decides to pull some psychedelic effects set to an oppressive score courtesy of Thomas Newman. Granted, the film demonstrates that smartphone technology can pull off some very intriguing visual effects on a shoestring budget for what it’s trying to do. There’s a scene involving a solitary confinement room that makes such a small space feel enormous by some well placed shots.
I have a feeling this is a film that’s going to be hugely instrumental in teaching future generations of filmmakers on how to make a movie with the most minimal amount of costs, considering this film was made for only $1.5 million. While that sounds like an astronomical figure to some, keep in mind most of that money went exclusively for the various actors and regular production crews associated with any film project. Film students can certainly find ways to cut costs on their own as they have since young filmmakers figured out ways to grab a camera and start making their own movies.
Because with an effective script and some stellar performances, you can make an effective movie on the cheap. While I do have some reservations about Unsane given half of its subject material was handled in a way that I find controversial, the other half more than made up for that fact and gave me a very haunting movie to see. So with that, I’ll give this a low..
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