This B-movie parade of horribles about a delusional young woman involuntarily institutionalized at a mental facility for observation is unsettling in a seat-squirming sort of way. And yet, there’s something comically ridiculous about her tailspin into madness, ostensibly triggered by the appearance of a genial orderly she’s convinced is an estranged boyfriend who’s infiltrated the hospital to stalk her. The real or imagined lengths to which the seemingly benign George/David (Leonard) will go to eliminate any obstacles blocking his obsessive pursuit of Sawyer (an intense, smoky-eyed Foy) absurdly defy the realm of possibility (he’s unrelenting, like the Terminator), but there’s just enough malevolence to color the humor in a shade of paranoia. In other words: Laugh at your own risk.
The is-she-or-isn’t-she? narrative linchpin of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay is nothing new, but a freshly motivated Soderbergh adeptly navigates it with iPhone 7 Plus in hand. The washed-out hues and fish-eye depth of field facilitated by his utilitarian camera give the film a creepy urgency appropriate for its milieu, though a freakout scene rendered by one of the device’s more advanced moviemaking features is a bit schlocky, no doubt in emulation of the second-bill films that inspire this movie. With a wink of the lens, the smartphone also appears in front of the camera, its ubiquitous presence in everyday life demonstrated when a fellow patient befriending Sawyer (Pharoah, providing intentional comic relief) surreptitiously uses one to keep in touch with the outside world, and Sawyer’s worried mother (a much-missed Irving) thrusts one into the face of a hospital administrator to record the bureaucrat’s shameless half-truths.
When the movie shifts from psychological to physical terror, the film (like Sawyer) unravels and finally loses its bearings. The discovery of a buried body in the woods, with the fingers of the corpse’s hand barely protruding from the ground, apparently provides a murky clue to the question of what’s real and what’s not, but the movie rushes to its conclusion with such predictable hysterics (chase scenes down corridors, locked doors, the unstoppable villain) that you forget to care about the answer. The film’s underlying indictment of a greedy mental health system precipitating Sawyer’s living nightmare likewise gets lost in the melodramatics. It’s a shame. Up to that point, Unsane is a decent thrill ride that messes with your head just enough to make you question your own sanity for a moment or two.
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