Well, folks, it’s been a minute since I’ve posted to this blog. Between working a full-time job and trying to manage the other aspects of my life, watching and critiquing films for their portrayal of mental health has not been a priority.
Until watching Unsane.
Unsane is a 2018 thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh (whom you may recognize from little indie flicks like Ocean’s Eleven or Magic Mike) which follows the story of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) and her struggle to cope after experiencing prolonged harassment and stalking… or IS IT???
The premise of this movie hinges on the audience never quite being sure if Sawyer is truly being stalked or is simply paranoid. The movie neglects to acknowledge people in the audience like me, who spend the entirety of the film thinking that it’s entirely possible and altogether very likely for Sawyer to both have been stalked AND be paranoid. This is a conclusion that they seem to not have considered.
The film begins grounded in a reality that is somewhat unsettling, shooting its subjects exclusively with the iPhone 7+ and distorting them slightly with a fisheye lense. We meet Sawyer and witness her hypervigilance — darting stares, poor concentration, high levels of anxiety — which we learn early on is tied to her having just moved cities to escape a stalker. When she realizes that she needs more help than she is currently receiving, she researches support groups for victims of stalking. This leads her to Highland Creek Behavioral Center, where she undergoes a (very bad) intake interview and inadvertently signs herself in for an inpatient stay.
At this point, I was fully on board with this movie! To me, this read as a critique on the very real problem of private psychiatric facilities being accused of “tricking” people into admissions in order to make a quick buck. Buzzfeed wrote a harrowing series of investigative reports outlining this very issue back in 2016. To see this play out in a thriller was intriguing.
The longer that Sawyer spends in Highland Creek, the more trauma she endures. When she is asked for an explanation as to why she cannot leave, she is met with platitudes from staff members who come off as condescending. She is harassed by other patients and forcibly medicated when she appears to be defending herself. In the midst of all this, she has flashbacks to her trauma of being stalked, seeing the face of her abuser on the staff members when she is at her most vulnerable state and ends up assaulting a staff member in response. I couldn’t believe that I was watching a film that was dramatizing a trauma response in a not wholly inaccurate way!
However, the story quickly goes off the rails. Spoilers below, so feel free to stop reading now and go watch the movie. I’ll be right here.
The plot thickens as Sawyer accuses one of the nurses of being her stalker! His name isn’t George, it’s David, and he’s the man she moved states to avoid. As the audience, you have no idea if Sawyer is having another flashback or if what she’s seeing is real! It’s very unsettling! It makes the audience feel as if you can’t trust anything you’re seeing, which could be entirely representative of Sawyer’s trauma response (both of being stalked and also now being admitted to a facility against her will).
As the movie hits its midpoint and you’re still not sure what’s real and what’s not… it turns out that her abuser actually is an employee of the facility! This employee was not a figment of Sawyer’s traumatized brain, but a horror-movie plot twist. The rest of the story plays out like every other horror movie I’ve seen and ceases to make any meaningful commentary on subjects like trauma, mental health treatment, or psychiatric facilities. We watch Sawyer fail to convince others that her abuser has finagled his way into her life once again; we see the sadistic (white, hetero, cis) man being abusive and murderous; and eventually, Sawyer gets her Final Girl moment as she slashes her abuser’s throat and we all cheer! Except the premise is so ridiculous that it’s hard to reconcile with the seriousness of the first half of the plot. How did this stalker kill an employee and steal his identity without his coworkers noticing? How did he go on to impersonate a second person in order to kill Sawyer’s mother?? Every additional plot point seems to turn this average, mediocre dude into a supernatural monster (which could be a whole blog post on its own).
The movie ends with a very convenient jump forward in time to show that Sawyer — who is somehow not in prison after committing murder and definitely leaving behind substantial evidence — is still quite nervous and paranoid, nearly stabbing a stranger she thought was her abuser. And this is played as a twist! When in reality, anyone who knows anything about interpersonal violence or trauma knows that the two are not mutually exclusive! So as the credits rolled and the freeze-frame of Sawyer’s face zoomed in, I let out a deep sigh and frantically started to write this blog post.
It’s unclear to me whether or not this movie wants you to come away thinking that Sawyer is somehow the Real Villain in all of this. By ending the movie with a scene where she nearly stabs a stranger in the throat due to her paranoia that he is her abuser, it seems to point that way. By the way, this seems like the perfect time to remind everybody that people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. In fact, one of the scariest scenes in this movie for me was during a flashback as we learn about the extent of Sawyer’s stalking experience. As she goes from her bedroom to shower and back again, a blue dress appears on her bed, showing the audience in one simple scene the extent of the terror her abuser has inflicted on her.
What is clear to me is that Soderbergh and the rest of the creative team behind this film wanted to make a movie that shocks you with all of its twists. Twists are great, just please don’t make them at the expense of ridiculing those who actually have experienced trauma.
You can currently stream Unsane on Amazon Prime.
Unsane (2018): ★
If you have experienced harassment, assault, or other forms of interpersonal violence and need someone to talk to, please reach out to RAINN or call 800-656-HOPE (4673).