“Maybe it’s all in my head”: Unsane, the horror film about gaslighting women

“There’s nothing we can do unless you have proof that a crime’s been committed.” This is what a police officer says, in a calm and unshakeable drawl, to a worried mother in Unsane. Her daughter, Sawyer, confesses that she still sees the stalker who she moved to a different city to avoid. One flashback and a slip of the tongue later, Sawyer’s been locked up in a mental institution, to be taken care of. Better safe than sorry, because women lie about these things all the time, right?

Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot thriller uses B-movie tropes and scrappy levels of melodrama to create a boisterous, energetic romp. Sawyer Valentini (played by a brilliant Claire Foy) is the woman on the verge, the character being questioned in Unsane. She’s since been described as “neurotic”, “a complete wreck” with a “fragile psyche”, and “naturally angry” by a wide range of (mostly male) critics – but you can’t really blame them. A story like this isn’t exactly new, and writing a bossy, relentless and often annoying woman still isn’t shocking. Amusing, if a bit saddening, the tropes borrow from age-old gender expectations which still remain to be challenged. But amid the kitsch jump-scares and heightened theatrics of Sawyer’s battle, Unsane might be the first film in a post-Weinstein era to actually make people listen. Or at least, it might make them question why they’re not.

The film bashes into a flurry of issues, from healthcare insurance to dodgy identity protection in the US. But what prevails, in a film being pushed and pulled in all directions, is the magnetic stamina of Foy’s performance as Sawyer. Foy is wired, her determination fizzing with verve in a deeply unsettling and somehow simultaneously playful role. Navigating leery bosses and distinctly mediocre Tinder dates, Sawyer is trying to get by in a city that promises her a new beginning. But when her most recent date triggers unwelcome memories, she finally submits and seeks help.

“Rationally, I know my neuroses are colluding with my imagination. But I’m not rational,” Sawyer tells a support worker who she hopes may help. And she genuinely believes that people will help – why wouldn’t they? But in admitting her (self-determined) weakness and making the difficult decision to acknowledge and share her fears, Sawyer’s anxieties only get worse as they become the demons that define her. As she tumbles further down the rabbit hole, the actual events that led her to speak out are mostly forgotten. The assault becomes one between what she knows and what the rest of her world wants to make her believe.

While Unsane might not strike every chord in a sharp and polished way, it digs into a scarily relevant problem that plagues modern dating and relationships: gaslighting. The phenomenon describes a way of emotionally manipulating a person to instil doubt about events and beliefs, eventually making them question their own sanity. For the many women who have, and continue to, come forward to condemn harassment and assault without always being listened to, it’s far too familiar – especially in the throes of #MeToo and Time’s Up.

There are references to “madhouse” classics in Unsane, which undoubtedly capitalises on the thrill of horror movies like Gaslight and Shock Corridor to write an entertaining narrative. But it’s difficult to ignore the parallels with Hollywood’s still-moving landscape. It’s hard to determine whether this film is a cartoonish parody or a crystal-clear mirror, exposing truths that have been concealed for too long.

The film survives, on such a rickety foundation of messy genre stereotypes and low-budget aesthetics, because to question a woman’s sanity rather than listen to her concerns can often provide a quick default solution, both on screen and off. To see such a painfully common through-line provide the basis for a hilariously bold and brash horror movie is refreshing. In questioning Sawyer’s sanity, I found myself questioning my own integrity. Why don’t I believe her? Would I be believed? Does gaslighting even exist?

In short – yes it does. Ghosting, benching, breadcrumbing, zombie-ing; there are countless trends employed by men (and yes, also by women) to intentionally or unintentionally harm a person in a relationship. Often involving a form of manipulation, either to maintain hope or sow doubt, it’s now far easier to question a person’s sanity than it is to try and trust a word anyone says. So the previously mentioned reviews of Unsane make sense, but also beg the question – is the debate focused on the quality of the film, or on Sawyer’s ability to tell the truth as a woman? Can she even do that?

Gaslighting comes to fruition when the person being accused begins to rethink their own feelings and concerns, after being urged to by someone else. Thankfully, as more women speak out about past and present abuse, Unsane shouldn’t need to be seen as a cry for help. It’s a wild and not always classy ride, with gawky comedy and look-away horror in turn. But it would be unfair to ignore its potential to stir a reaction against a real-life danger, even in a rough-and-ready format.

When watching Sawyer’s nightmare become increasingly vivid, try and take a step back. Have you ever dismissed someone’s accusations rather than ask them how they’re feeling? As the film skilfully portrays a spiral down, in, around and back out of insanity, it focuses on this woman’s mental health rather than her experiences of harassment, stalking and now, gaslighting. “Is she becoming too deeply unhinged?” The Hollywood Reporter asks in its review of the film, to which Sawyer indirectly replies: “Maybe it’s all in my head.”

Maybe it is, but to consider an exotic alternative in which trust replaces preconceptions of female hysteria, Unsane offers a glaring warning sign of the times if ever there was one.

Originally published on Refinery29

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