How much is too much?
This is a question that horror filmmakers have been confronted with since the inception of the genre. The idea of horror is to offend. To scare. To disturb or upset. But at what point does a filmmaker cross the line from “Willfully Upsetting” to “Irresponsibly Exploitative”?
Don’t ask Steven Soderbergh.
On the surface, Unsane has all the makings of a cool, modern horror film. The main gimmick of the film, that the entirety of it was filmed on an iPhone, is admittedly unique. It gave the whole film a gritty, letterbox look which I was a big fan of from the onset.
It is also worth noting that Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, and Juno Temple all give great performances as the film’s four main characters.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the nitty-gritty of it, shall we?
This is a film that revels in the terror of women, and one woman in particular. Sawyer Valentini (Foy), who has been relentlessly stalked for the past two years by a mysterious man named David Strine (Leonard).
Now, I am all about a gritty, honest film that deals with the dangers of toxic masculinity, male violence, and the fear that many women are subjected to at the hands of men who believe they are their property.
But this was not that film.
Instead, when Sawyer seeks help for her PTSD (brought on by her years of running from her stalker), she is unwillingly admitted into a mental facility as part of a scam the facility is running. The more patients they have enrolled, the more money they receive.
So now we’re dealing with two big issues: violent men, and mental health care. And to top it all off, Sawyer soon learns that her stalker has somehow secured a position as a well-respected orderly in the hospital.
This begs the question: how the hell did the stalker somehow set himself up at this facility, knowing that Sawyer would eventually seek it out herself, and get admitted there?
Was it a coincidence? Does he somehow have mind-control abilities we don’t know about? Was this the only mental health facility within two-hundred miles of where Sawyer was living? We never find out.
This major hole in the plot admittedly bothered me early on, and maybe it helped to taint my opinion of the rest of the film. But I don’t think so.
It is difficult to get into the exact specifics of what I found so egregious about this film without spoiling it, so I’m going to put a warning here for…Vague Spoilers?
Read at your discretion.
Horror is, at its core, a genre where no one is safe. I have seen (and made) plenty of horror films where, by the end, every single character has perished in some terrible, twisted fashion, and I was not the least bit offended by it. That’s the nature of the genre! Bad things happen.
This is not a film that ends in such bloodshed. In fact, as R-rated horror goes, it’s really not all that violent. But it is the few sequences of violence in this film that gave me pause.
Sexual violence against women is something we are confronted with daily in today’s world. We are living in the era of #MeToo; we are watching as men in positions of power are brought down by women who decided they would not be treated as second-class citizens anymore.
It feels like an important, exciting time to be alive.
I honestly believed, at the onset, that this was going to be a film that had that message at its core. Women can be bad-ass survivors. Fear can be beaten. We, as humans, can work together to survive even in the most terrible of conditions.
I expected an angry movie. A haunted thriller which dealt with the fear that can come just from being a woman in today’s world.
But my hopes were not to be realized.
Sawyer is a savvy protagonist. She is brave, and she is willing to do whatever she has to do to survive the terrible situation in which she finds herself. She is not the ‘terrified woman’ we have seen in so many horror films in the past. She looks her stalker dead in the eyes and tells him she is not afraid.
I really wanted to like her!
But she also has no qualms with allowing another woman, totally not in on her plans in any way shape or form, to be sexually assaulted and nearly raped so that she can escape from her captor. She literally uses a mentally ill person as bait, going so far as to shove the poor girl out of the way so that she can escape. She turns around just in time to see her unwitting accomplice, all the while begging for her help, get her neck snapped.
It may be worth noting, at this point, that this plan revolved around the fact that Sawyer knew this woman was actually attracted to her, meaning she would trust her just enough to give her a moment to steal a weapon from her.
The only gay character in this film gets drugged, sexually assaulted, and finally killed.
The other major violent scene in this film features its only black character being tortured with electrocution, and finally drugged to death.
I was not thrilled by this.
And look, I get it. It’s horror. It’s shock-value. If I’m offended, that means the movie did its job, right? I should just get off my high-horse, and understand that this movie was not meant to be pretty. That it was meant to upset me.
But I say ‘no’.
We cannot be lazy and allow a film to get away with meaningless exploitation simply because it is a part of a genre we love. This only contributes to the stereotype that we fans of horror movies lack good taste. And I know, because I have been a part of this sub-culture for a long while, that we do not.
There are plenty of movies out there that tackle the exact same issues as Unsane without pushing past these same boundaries. Green Room, Neon Deon, Mullholland Drive, and many others come to mind. Movies which deal with violence, hatred, racial tension, feminism, and what it is to be human. Movies that make a point.
I am not saying that women can’t die in horror films. I am not saying that black people can’t die in horror films. But their deaths should not be meaningless. They should not be done for shock value.
There is a glimmer of hope, though. Unsane was shot with an iPhone. A freaking iPhone!
So I’m speaking now to all my fellow filmmakers out there. If you’re sitting there, reading this, thinking ‘I could do better than that’, then do it. Go out there; grab some friends and a recording device, and make a movie.
Unsane just didn’t know any better.
I think we do.