Ah, pictures set in mental institutions - more often than not, they get under my skin, the likes of Anatole Litvak's The Snake Pit, Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor and Hall Bartlett's The Caretakers standing among the best of this fare. There's just something about the claustrophobia of these settings and the helplessness the characters so often feel that intensely resonates.
Steven Soderbergh's Unsane may be a throwback to these and other hospital-set melodramas but it doesn't quite pack the same punch as the strongest of these films.
Claire Foy is front and center, doing most of the picture's heavy lifting as Sawyer Valentini, a woman struggling to escape her past. Stalked by a man (Joshua Leonard) over the past two years, she moves from Boston to Pennsylvania but can't quite get him out of her head. She seeks therapy at a nearby behavioral center and unwittingly ends up signing up for a 24-hour commitment there.
It isn't long before those 24 hours turn into a week, as doctors and nurses question her sanity. Then, the ultimate nightmare - her stalker shows up as a new staff person, under a new name, hellbent on continuing his pursuit...or could it be that she's really just going bananas? Sawyer can kinda-sorta count on the one fellow patient (Jay Pharoah) who believes she isn't crazy, plus her estranged mother (Amy Irving), who desperately wants her out of there, but actually departing this asylum from hell proves the tallest of tasks.
Soderbergh's decision to shoot Unsane entirely on an iPhone is actually quite nifty and powerful, making the proceedings look and feel more grounded in reality. It's too bad then that the screenplay, by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, is such a letdown, devoid of any real surprises. What really prevents Unsane from ever soaring, however, is the stalker, a villain always more insufferable than actually scary.
Foy, while no Olivia de Havilland, is in strong form, SNL alumnus Pharoah is inspired casting and Irving's of course always a pleasure to see grace the screen. Also, there are moments here and there where Soderbergh shows himself to be wholly capable of delivering the goods in a thriller like this but they're sadly few and far between, the script always getting in the way of building any real momentum. Oh, and did I mention this also includes a Matthew Broderick in Manchester by the Sea-level atrocity of a celebrity cameo. Why, Soderbergh, why?
I sure hope the spectacularly talented Foy can land more satisfying film vehicles than Unsane.