Oscar Winner for Most Stressful Experience
If you woke up today to a long text breakup from your boyfriend or girlfriend, if your boss just assigned you to work on a month-long assignment with the guy you hate most at work, if your pet died, if you caught the stomach flu and then fell in the shower out of dizziness, if you lost your rent money during March Madness, if you defecated yourself while out in the world today and didn't have a nearby bathroom accessible, you should go see 'Unsane' tonight. Steven Soderbergh's new movie (out now) is poorly written, directed, acted, et al, but most importantly: it is so difficult to watch that no matter how terrible your life is at this moment, you'll leave the theater feeling better for having survived the experience.
In Unsane, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) has just moved to a new city to escape her stalker ex-boyfriend (Joshua Leonard) when she begins to demonstrate symptoms of PTSD. After a few psychotic episodes Sawyer seeks help from a psychologist, who involuntarily places her in a mental institution. Her struggle to get out of, or cope with, the reality of her new situation is complicated when that dangerous ex shows up as a new employee of the facility.
On paper, Unsane appears like it could work. The plot sets up a little "is she crazy or is she not" brain tease. Steven Soderbergh is an experienced director--the kind of auteur type who might just flex and cast Jay Pharoah in a dramatic role. Juno Temple gives a veritably great performance as a deranged young female patient. And for all the budget not used on scoring and post-production (the film is anxiously devoid of both music and visual polish), there are a few guest cameos that are truly fun surprises.
The problem, though, is this: 'Unsane' isn't just bad, it's painful to sit through.
I could go on and on about the film's more conventional problems: lo-fi camera shots that scream "shot on iPhone 4S"; a screenplay that repeatedly tells-not-shows; fish-eye camera that's presumably meant to give audiences a Vertigo-ic feeling of distorted reality but ends up just being flat out distracting; plot holes and loose ends; Jay Pharoah, for all his comic talent, actually not being a good dramatic actor; one-dimensional characters; naming the movie in the form of a pun (never a good sign). But to give too much consideration to these more standard-fare issues would be to miss the forest for the trees.
Unsane is straight torture porn. The first half of the film at least plants the seeds of potentially interesting plot developments--like, say, a corrupt big pharma theme--and subtle psychological games of trying to figure out whether we're dealing with a reliable or unreliable main character. However, the big reveal halfway through shifts the character of the film entirely, doing away with anything resembling subtlety or sophistication in the story, opting instead for a basic "will she die or won't she, and how".
Every scene following the reveal serves only to ratchet up the level of Hell manifest onscreen. I wouldn't want to spoil any of the fun for you, so I'll give just one example of what I'm talking about. There's a scene in Unsane where a woman getting raped is literally secondary--almost insignificant--to what's going on. My mind couldn't have conceived, before watching this film, of any scenario where violent rape could be the second most terrible thing happening at one place and time. Oh, and then there's another scene a few minutes later that makes the one I just described seem like child's play.
This film is remarkably, exceptionally, fucked up.
There actually could be a second reason to see Unsane. At some point during the viewing the other night, I felt myself join a coalition of audience members who simply gave up on seeing this as a serious piece, gave up on feeling bad, and just started laughing. The shock value of the film became so extra that it actually fell back in on itself, and all of what might have otherwise been upsetting transformed into farce. Perhaps Unsane, in the vein of other trash films like "The Room", is seen better as a comedy of schadenfreude. There's no doubt that far more laughter was had at the AMC during this film's screening than, say, during 'The Death of Stalin', an intentional comedy which I saw later in the week. After enduring the physical and mental stress of Unsan--watching the Sawyer Valentini character experience fates far worse than death, new and fresh in every scene--I left the theater feeling a weight lifted, and laughing a little to myself.
Nate Nelson is an NYC-based writer and podcast host.