UNSANE, the latest film from Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, sex, lies, and videotape), is an intense, thought provoking, and engrossing psychological horror thriller that will have viewers on the edge of their seats. The film stars Claire Foy (“The Crown”), Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), and Jay Pharoah (“Saturday Night Live”), Juno Temple (The Dark Night Rises), Aimee Mullins (“Stranger Things”) and Amy Irving (Traffic).
UNSANE, written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, is a story centering around Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a survivor of stalking, who is involuntarily committed to a mental institution. While navigating the terms for her release, Sawyer is forced to adapt to the treatment environment and comes face to face with her stalker. Viewers are challenged with the task of determining whether her fears are a product of her imagination or whether she is in real danger. Either way, viewers are invited into Sawyer’s experience of anxiety, horror, and panic that result from being trapped against one’s will with a psychopath.
Having viewed the trailer, I had high expectations for this film and it did not disappoint. Due to the talented actors involved in this piece, I was deeply engrossed and connected to Sawyer’s struggle for freedom and safety. Whether or not I trusted her evaluation of the situation, I was very much in it with her and experiencing her anxiety, horror, and frustration. Close ups, unique camera angles, and special effects were also used to draw the viewer in. Joshua Leonard’s performance perfected the stalker trope; creating a character that was slimy, pathetic, and yet extremely dangerous and frightening. For the majority of the film, I was mired in anxiety, angst, and discomfort waiting for a resolution to Sawyer’s plight. However, writers Bernstein and Greer, created a number of moments for comic relief utilizing characters played by Pharoh and Temple especially which created a well needed departure from the Sawyer’s anxiety ridden reality.
What makes UNSANE such a relatable horror film is that its premise is not far removed from what could conceivably happen in reality. Although Sawyer did not present with active suicidal ideation and was not in imminent danger to herself or others, she did endorse a vague plan of how she could kill herself with access to means. It would not be out of the realm of possibility that an ethically bankrupt and unlawful mental health practitioner could initiate an involuntary psychiatric hold. In fact, the famous journal article by Rosenthal (1973), “On being sane in unsane places”, provided evidence that individuals in psychiatric hospitals can be involuntary treated, diagnosed, and suggested antipsychotic medications in the absence of continued symptoms which made a critique on the ability to effectively diagnose a patient in a psychiatric setting. UNSANE takes it a step further and critiques how the mental health industry is a business that could possibly institutionalize and imprison people for profit through insurance fraud. These realities add to the sense of anxiety and horror experienced by the viewer.
Fans of psychological thrillers will be thoroughly entertained by UNSANE. Although cringe worthy and painful to watch at times, the film creates a emotional and visceral journey for viewers to detach from their reality and immersive themselves in Sawyer’s psychological and physical hell for an hour and thirty seven minutes. Viewers may find that the beginning and ending credits as well as the music choice in certain scenes detract somewhat from the film. However, the story line, character development, and evocative nature of the movie creates an experience that horror fans will likely appreciate, although it is not a typical horror film. Cast among colorful characters in a treatment setting, UNSANE invites viewers to explore perceptions of reality, delusions of love, and the potential flaws of psychiatric institutions while experiencing anxiety, frustration, and hope for resolution.
You can catch UNSANE in theaters March 22, 2018.
*Reference: Rosenhan, D. L. (1973). On Being Sane in Insane Places [Abstract]. Science, 179(4070), 250-258. doi:10.1126/science.179.4070.250
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