Istanbul Film Festival ’18 Review: Unsane

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The rise of iPhone films is upon us and despite what some might think (eg: real films are shot on film!), it is a good rise. Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” led the way and Steven Soderbergh is one of the directors to follow. It’s a method that will inspire young and financially limited filmmakers and as one myself, I am delighted by it. Shot secretly and in ten days, “Unsane” tells the story of Sawyer Valentini (played by the gorgeous, talented, showstopping, my celebrity crush-ahem- Claire Foy), who is involuntarily committed to a mental institution. As if that wasn’t enough, she is forced to face her greatest fear there, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard). But *drum rolls* is it really him, or just her imagination?

Visually, the iPhone look takes a minute or two to get used to but once you do, it feels like watching any other film. It feels like watching a footage that was shot in secrecy, which fits the story so well. The dark colour scheme compliments the trapped feeling of the locations and the suffering of the characters.

“Unsane” is a criticism of healthcare and capitalism. Whilst Sawyer tries to convince the doctors that she is not supposed to be there and George the Nice Nurse is actually her stalker, her fellow inmate Nate (an underused Jay Pharoah) explains to her that it’s all a scam. As long as her health insurance pays for it, they are going to keep her there. The main story of the film might be about Sawyer and her trauma, but it’s wrapped in how healthcare is just another human need that became part of the inescapable capitalistic hegemony. This is only one of the stories, as Nate informs Sawyer that most patients in mental institutions around the country don’t actually belong there. There are beds to be filled and money to be earned, like any other business.

The film is also a criticism of toxic masculinity and male entitlement. Sawyer’s restraining order and all her efforts to escape her stalker don’t mean anything to David who believes Sawyer belongs to him, and he will go to any length to prove her so. While scenes in the mental institution are nerve-wrecking, the scene that made my chest heavy was the one in which a counsellor (a random appearance by Matt Damon) explains to Sawyer everything she has to do to protect herself from David. Simply moving to another city, leaving her friends and family behind, changing her job, her phone number, and her mail address, all of this is not enough. She has to delete all her social media accounts, tell her friends to never post photos of her, use public transport instead of a car, never go through dark alleys, and a lot of other things that all women have been advised to do at some point in their life. Sawyer’s life is controlled by David even when he’s not there because all that she’s done is not enough to keep him away. There is also Sawyer’s trauma. She keeps seeing David’s face everywhere and when she decides to get help, the help spits on her face, locks her up and treats her like many women are treated – by not believing in her.

“Unsane” is an almost perfect film. The built up, twist and turns, the social commentary are developed greatly until the third act. The finale feels unsatisfactory and not all of developed themes pay off. But it is still a wonderful film by one of the greatest directors of our time, with one of the most promising actresses. It is always great, and inspiring, to watch Soderbergh experiment, whether they succeed or not, and it is refreshing to see Foy in a role where she doesn’t have to drink tea and be stereotypically British.

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