Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Unsane.
The term "gaslighting," a word thrown around a lot these days, actually comes from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton called Gaslight, then adapted into the 1944 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.
The plot follows would-be opera singer Paula, who, after years of running from the memory of her aunt's terrible murder, finds solace in the arms of a man called George Anton. The two marry, and it seems like things are off to a good start until, slowly, a series of bizarre events lead Paula to start doubting her sanity, an idea her new husband does everything in his power to fuel. The title itself comes from a famous scene in which Paula notices that the lights in the house have gone dim and flicker, only to be told that she's imagining things. In the end, of course, both Paula and the audience learn that she was right all along: George isn't actually who he says he is, and the strange incidents are of his own making. He, like countless men before and after him, has a vested interest in making a woman doubt everything she knows about herself, to the point where she almost truly does go insane.
Similar themes are at play in Steven Soderbergh's Unsane, a horror-thriller starring Claire Foy about a woman who accidentally commits herself into a mental health treatment facility, and is repeatedly made to believe that she actually does belong there.
Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a data analyst who recently relocated to Pennsylvania from Boston to escape her stalker. The mood is set from the beginning when a conversation with her boss veers into harassment territory: this is a woman whose word will almost certainly be questioned.
When a one-night stand takes a jarring turn, Sawyer realises she needs help coping with the psychological effects of being stalked, and seeks out counsel from a mental health professional at Highland Creek Behavioral Center. When she confesses to occasional (but very detailed) suicidal thoughts, she's asked to sign some basic paperwork that, unbeknownst to her, includes a form for voluntary commitment. (If there was ever an argument in favour of reading the fine print, this is it.) Despite the film's later, more traditional horror scenes, this might actually be the scariest stretch in the narrative, mostly because it all happens so quickly and believably: the admitting physician gives Sawyer the so-called boilerplate forms, which she signs unquestioningly; when she returns them to the receptionist, she's told to wait for a nurse; when the nurse finally comes, she's taken to an exam room, where she's told to strip and submit to a routine check-up; when that's done, she's told to follow the nurse, and ends up in a psych ward. Voila, committed. Who among us would behave differently at any point in that process, when repeatedly told by medical professionals that it's just "routine procedure"?
Of course, Sawyer tries to rectify the situation, first by reasoning with the ward nurse (a diluted Nurse Ratched), then by placing a call to the cops (who, as the nurse points out, get dozens of those a week, and therefore are unlikely to respond), and finally, by throwing a violent fit that just confirms to everyone around her that she does belong in this place. For the next week, she'll be surrounded by orderlies and other patients, either numbed out on drug cocktails or violently unstable. Her only relief comes in the form of Nate (Jay Pharaoh), a recovering opioid addict who warns her that she's caught up in a scam run by the Highland Creek administration: As long as her insurance doesn't run out, she'll continue to fill a bed.
The nightmarish quality of this whole story is underscored by the film's muted, washed out colour palette. Shot on an iPhone, the picture and sound is often distorted in a way that feels more like grainy security footage than cinematic takes. And while that conceit is interesting on an intellectual level, it makes actually watching the movie into more of a chore than it should be. Suddenly "shot on an iPhone" feels like a euphemism for bad lighting.
And as if being duped into a stint in an asylum wasn't scary enough, things take a turn for the worse when Sawyer makes the claim that her stalker, David Strine, has tricked his way into a job in the same facility, masquerading as a people-pleaser night shift orderly named George (Joshua Leonard), in a clear reference to Gaslight.
And here is where Unsane hits a crossroads: Do we believe Sawyer, who so far, has been framed as vacillating between volatile and rational? Or is this just proof that she really is unstable? Is it, as she suggests in a moment of defeatism, all in her head?
The question of whether or not to believe women has been central to the reckoning taking place in Hollywood and across industries in recent months. We've recently seen the real life consequences of that disbelief in the dozens of accusations of sexual harassment and assault that have emerged as a result of this national conversation, and it's a question that deserves a robust introspection in the cultural space. That's why it's so disappointing when Unsane abandons the Gaslight premise almost immediately, veering off into another, less interesting direction. The film gives us the answer too soon, choosing a more straightforward horror route rather than living in the murky grey areas that define great psychological thrillers.
What's more, the script, by comedy screenwriting duo Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, feels off tone-wise, especially once you realise that this is less One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and more The Blair Witch Project. The insurance scam plot is interesting on its own, but it almost feels like a separate movie, and detracts from what should be the emotional core: the complex relationship between a stalker and his victim, and the ease with which we as a society fail to believe women when they speak out of turn. Still, Pharoah's timing is flawless, and he, along with Juno Temple's twitchy, dreadlocked Violet, are welcome additions to a story with few developed characters.
Foy's performance is the one saving grace in what would otherwise come off as a schlocky B-movie impersonator, the first of many we're bound to see in a post-Get Out world. She brings grit and steely resolve to a character that's as far from Queen Elizabeth II as humanly possible, and hints at a wide range that hopefully will get better opportunities to be showcased.
Unsane is out in cinemas on March 23.
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