[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Unsane.”]
Much of the hype over Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, “Unsane,” has centered around the filmmaker’s decision to shoot the entire movie on his iPhone. But beyond the movie’s technical marvels, “Unsane” offers viewers a harrowing window into the experiences of many women struggling to maintain normalcy after a crippling violation — whether it’s sexual assault or, in the case of the movie’s main character, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a stalker.
From the start of “Unsane,” it’s clear that Sawyer’s life has been turned upside-down. She has taken on a new job in a new city, where she’s irritable and brittle with her co-workers and clients, and thinks she sees her stalker (Joshua Leonard) walking down the halls. Almost immediately, Sawyer must brush off the inappropriate advances of her new boss, who suggests the two take a business trip to Las Vegas, where he not-so-subtly mentions they can have fun together and he can “mentor” her.
As she eats her lunch alone on a park bench, Sawyer FaceTimes with her mother (Amy Irving), trying desperately to prove that she’s happy with her new life and enjoys going out with friends. But later that evening, after getting drunk and bringing home a stranger she met at a bar, Sawyer breaks down. Although she’s the one who initiates the hook up, and aggressively makes the first move at her apartment, she quickly recoils and locks herself in the bathroom, where she breaks down. It’s clear that Sawyer just wants things to be normal, to go back to the way things were before, but they never can be again.
“Unsane” makes a point of playing on Sawyer’s sanity: Does she really see her stalker everywhere she goes, or is it all in her head? As it turns out — spoiler alert! — she’s not crazy, but for victims of sexual assault, this is a question that hits close to home. Sexual assault survivors aren’t immune from flashbacks even as the years go by. Just as Sawyer yearns for normalcy, life after an assault can be clouded by the haze of nostalgia for the way things used to be, for a time when feeling carefree didn’t feel like a luxury.
Sawyer’s quest for healing drives her to seek help at the mental health clinic (which she finds by googling “support groups for victims of stalking”). After mentioning her past suicidal feelings, she’s involuntarily committed to the facility’s psychiatric ward via a health care loophole. Flummoxed, she begs the staff to let her go home. “There must be some kind of mistake,” she pleads. “I don’t belong here.” But Sawyer’s pleas are either laughed at or ignored. No one ever thinks they belong in the psych ward.
From there, Soderbergh transforms “Unsane” into a scathing critique of the American healthcare system. Sawyer’s stay is extended from 24 hours to a week after she fights off a patient who gropes her. It’s done under the guise of protection, as she’s declared a threat to herself and other, but as Nate (Jay Pharaoh) explains to Sawyer, the only thing that will end her stay it isn’t actual recovery or improvement — it’s her insurance money running out.
“Unsane” takes a darker turn when Sawyer’s stalker, David, pops up as an orderly giving out medicine to the patients. Sawyer flips out, trying to explain that this is the man that has landed her in this situation, but the orderlies just cart her away, strapping her down to her bed and sedating her. As if this wasn’t bad enough, later on, David slips her an extra dose of medication that causes her to have a violent reaction.
Sawyer’s struggles at the mercy of her stalker form a powerful metaphor for how victims of sexual assault feel in the aftermath of their experiences, especially if they have to encounter their attackers on a daily basis. At every turn, Sawyer is being gaslit by the staff and her fellow patients, who don’t believe her when she tells them what has happened and who has done it to her, despite her attacker being in a position of authority over her.
It’s impossible to watch the movie without considering the parallels to Harvey Weinstein. For years, rumors about Weinstein were whispered around Hollywood, but the mogul maintained a powerful position that enabled him to abuse women at will. Those who dared to speak out were anomalies and suffered the consequences: Their reputations were dragged through the mud, their sanity was called into question, and their sexual history was laid bare to dilute their credibility. These women weren’t unlike Sawyer, victims begging to be taken seriously who were ultimately ignored to protect the reputation of “good” men.
Midway though the film, Sawyer tells Nate that she met David while volunteering at a hospice in Boston, where she would read the newspaper to David’s dying father every day. At his father’s funeral, David takes Sawyer’s hand and tells her that his father would want them together. When guilt doesn’t compel Sawyer, he sends ostentatious bouquets to her job, texts her non-stop, and even breaks into her house to lay out clothes for her.
David has crossed a dangerous line, but it’s Sawyer who feels the repercussions. She must upend her entire life to protect herself, while David escapes unscathed. She’s advised against any social media presence, and must change her daily routine: where she parks her car, and which entrance she uses to enter her apartment. Eventually, Sawyer leaves behind her home, her mother and her friends. Nothing ever changes for David.
In the end, despite a very uncomfortable power imbalance, “Unsane” allows Sawyer to triumph. She’s a fresh variation on the “Final Girl” trope found in horror movies stretching back to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Halloween.” Released at a moment in which men are increasingly held accountable for years of sexual harassment, both in and outside of the workplace, Sawyer’s plight reflects a modern sentiment. Seeing her take down her stalker is especially satisfying not just because of the horrible events that have occurred since she entered the hospital, but also because of everything leading up to that chapter. All too often, it is victims who have their lives irreparably changed, and never the perpetrators.
But Sawyer’s triumph isn’t quite a happy ending. As the film’s coda reminds us, trauma doesn’t fade so easily. Six months later, Sawyer seems fairly well-adjusted, but surviving sexual assault means living with a deep scar that will ache when you least expect it. Even though she knows he’s gone, Sawyer thinks she sees David in a restaurant, and walks over to him gripping a knife. This time, it isn’t him; horrified, she flees.
Has she finally lost it? That reductive conclusion comes at the expense of the movie’s subtler conclusion. Like most survivors, Sawyer must reclaim her life on a daily basis, forging ahead stronger but forever changed. As a Final Girl for the #MeToo era, her conundrum gives “Unsane” a progressive edge, shedding some much-needed light on a struggle women have silently endured for far too long.