After ‘Get Out’ and #MeToo, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Unsane’ is all too unnerving
Horror movies don’t need a monster in a hockey mask when real life is already so scary
This article contains spoilers.
Add Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Unsane, to the ranks of psychological horror-thrillers that double as documentaries. Those of us who’ve seen Get Out or read too many shiver-inducing tales of #MeToo can never consume horror the same way again.
Partly this is because what constitutes horror is being expanded by our broadening understanding of history. The Netflix series Mindhunter draws on the real-life story of FBI agents developing a framework to understand the motives of serial killers. (Hint: It’s misogyny. It’s always misogyny.) The Handmaid’s Tale draws on the fear of state control over women’s bodies. Get Out, a tale about white body snatchers, reminds you that George Washington used to wear his own slaves’ teeth. All of it is more frightening than dudes in hockey masks or sporting razor blades for fingernails.
The Boogie Monster isn’t It. It’s us.
Is it even possible now to see a woman on screen being gaslit by a man without thinking about other women who have been silenced and discredited by being labeled as hysterical? #MeToo has unveiled a matrix of oppression obscured by a status quo in which women have been encouraged to second-guess ourselves, our abilities and our own perceptions of reality.
Now there’s a new movie about a woman going through the same thing.
Unsane follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) as she tries to escape her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard). She’s moved hundreds of miles away from him, deleted her Facebook account, changed her phone number and found a new job. And yet, she cannot stop wondering if he’s still surreptitiously monitoring her every move, so she goes to see a therapist at a mental health facility. Once there, Sawyer falls into a trap, signing documents without fully reading them. Those documents allow the facility to hold her until its doctors decide she’s no longer a threat to herself or others. Against her will, Sawyer is thrown into a ward with people dealing with illnesses far more pronounced than her own post-traumatic stress disorder. She makes friends with another person in the ward, Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), who’s checked himself in, supposedly to get treatment for an opioid addiction. Nate turns out to be an undercover journalist who rightly suspects that the hospital is trumping up violent symptoms of mental illness so that it can hold patients until their insurance runs out.
It’s like the for-profit prison industry, but for “crazy” people! Ain’t capitalism grand?
When Sawyer calls 911, the police show up but breezily dismiss her accusations without even talking to her. Sawyer’s reaction changes from impertinent “I was told by AppleCare” to full-on maniacal when she realizes that her stalker is working in the facility under an assumed name.
Everything gets worse from there.
The central question of Unsane is supposed to be whether Sawyer is actually being stalked or whether she’s a victim of her own paranoid delusions. But an America in which Harvey Weinstein gaslights Rose McGowan with ex-Mossad agents has rendered that question moot. I didn’t sit through Unsane wondering whether Sawyer was really experiencing what she said she was. I went straight to wondering how she was going to manage to escape it, or if she, and all of us, would be stuck in a padded cell until we learn to submit to white patriarchal hegemony.
There’s a lynching in Unsane. It’s no more literal than Get Out is literally a movie about American slavery. But a deconstructed lynching is a lynching all the same. David is a fragile white man who feels threatened by the rapport between Sawyer and Nate. She belongs to him, not anyone else. And certainly not a black man.
Pharoah didn’t audition for that part, he told me recently. Soderbergh reached out to his agent and said it was expressly for him. Which means Nate didn’t become black because Pharoah was cast to play him. His blackness is as essential to his character as Foy’s and Leonard’s whiteness is to theirs. Even without that nugget of information, it’s impossible to watch Unsane after seeing Get Out and not think about how its themes are complicated by race and gender.
But just to be sure, I watched Gaslight, the 1944 George Cukor thriller about a woman named Paula (Ingrid Bergman) whose husband systematically tries to convince her that she’s mentally unwell so that he can search for and steal some valuable jewels left to her by her aunt. It’s the film that’s responsible for why we now identify the act of trying to convince someone they’re crazy by continually denying what they know to be true as “gaslighting.”
Gaslight remains unnerving, but there’s a quaintness to it. The villain, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), is ultimately in pursuit of some high-priced baubles. Gaslighting is a means to an end. For Unsane’s David, gaslighting is the point. David is insecure, delusional and violent in a world that never assumes he might be any of those things because he has the good fortune of being straight, white, male and cunning. He is the ultimate benefactor of the suspension of doubt. David is fearsome because he walks freely among us — as a Proud Boy, a 4Chan-er, a disgruntled member of the manosphere.
Shot on an iPhone, often with a fisheye lens, Unsane turns its audience into voyeurs peeking in on the private hell of Sawyer’s life. We’re so busy trying to figure out whether this woman is actually crazy that we miss the ways we’re all silent bystanders, complicit and distracted, as one disturbed and empowered man slowly and methodically takes over his own little corner of the universe.
Oh, sure, he’s eventually discovered. But the damage he’s wrought before it happens is lasting and real.