In this excerpt from her essay on Claire Foy’s career, which features in our feminist horror ebook Beyond Empowertainment, Alex Heeney discusses the many masks of Claire Foy in Unsane. Explore our coverage of Women in Horror Month here.
In almost every frame of Unsane, Claire Foy’s character must don and shed masks against her own inclinations. At first, it’s to avoid rocking the boat at her job and fly under-the-radar in her life — and she’s got it down to an art. When Soderbergh introduces Foy’s character, Sawyer Valentini, he’s careful to show her as a chameleon: taking on different roles in different situations, always with the aim of avoiding trouble. On the phone at work, she’s terse, dismissive, and borderline rude while dealing with a difficult client — Sawyer is arrogant about her abilities and feels no need to hide it. When she FaceTimes with her mother, her fake smiles and forced upbeat tone clash with her nervous, quick eating, and the way she keeps scanning her surroundings.
Playing all these parts is exhausting. With her leering boss, she maintains as much physical distance as possible, stiffening her body both out of stress and to appear closed off, providing no opportunity to be misinterpreted. When he compliments her, she briefly relaxes her shoulders, but her forced smile and sideways glance tells us she’s still on guard; she’s worried something is coming next. When it does, her face doesn’t fall so much as go blank and still for the first time, disappointed but not surprised. Her jaw tightens. Pausing for a few seconds, she finds a way to leave as quickly as possible.
Listen to our podcast episode about gaslighting in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane and Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man
It’s not until she speaks to a counsellor at the Highland Creek medical facility about her stalking that she lets her guard down at all, slouches in her chair, her voice finally cracking with barely held-back tears. Shot in a closeup, Foy’s face registers Sawyer’s uncertainty and fear: her face is never still, twitching, her head moving jerkily, like she’s already afraid of herself because she knows there’s no stalker there. But we also see her determination, never allowing herself to wallow for too long — she’s too smart, and she needs the counsellor to know she fully understands her situation. Of course, this one time she lets her guard down is when she’s taken advantage of, and gets held against her will in the psychiatric hospital.
Once inside the psychiatric hospital, the rules have changed, and Sawyer is constantly testing different tactics to try to navigate this hostile system. Sawyer is literally imprisoned by patriarchal forces. At first, she can’t even believe what’s happening to her, and tries to control the situation through bluster, but even that mask slips as she complies, bit by bit. When taken into an examination room, she holds her ground by staying close to the door, looking around her for support or solutions, her breathing laboured. But she does what she’s told, constantly asking if that means she can now go, hopeful things will course correct. When she whispers, “But there’s nothing wrong with me,” there’s uncertainty in her voice: the confident Sawyer we know would proclaim it, if she were fully certain. She follows the nurse down the halls, but eventually stops, hoping that if she can stop the trajectory deeper into the hospital with her movements, she can stop what’s happening to her.
When reasoning with the nurse doesn’t work, she tries an alternate tactic: stepping close to the nurse, angling her head down to the nurse’s height, Sawyer suddenly speaks in a sugar-sweet, quiet voice, a smile plastered on her face, kindly asking for a phone call. But as soon as she gets what she wants, that sweet girl mask drops. Standing at the counter by the phone, she contorts herself into a powerful posture, taking up more space. She calls the cops, speaks clearly and firmly — not too quickly, to avoid sounding panicked — taunting the nurse with her eyes as though she knows she’s won.
Once she knows her stalker, David (Joshua Leonard), is in the hospital and real, she’s emboldened, even as she’s still terrified — Foy’s trademark duality. She yells at David, stretches her arm out to point at him and declare to all who can see that he’s a liar. And yet even as she does so, she’s backed against the wall, shaken. When she talks to the doctor about what’s happened, armed with the knowledge that she’s right, she no longer tries to placate him, as in their first meeting, just as she had the nurse. This time, she’s direct and precise, assuming the doctor will be on her side, only to discover she’s completely alone.
With no semblance of control left in her life, Sawyer finds it even more taxing to play into feminine stereotypes of compliance and docility in order to manipulate those with power over her. Indeed, the deeper she gets in, the less she bothers to don masks. Sometimes, that’s a comfort, when she talks with fellow patient Nate (Jay Pharaoh), and we see her first genuine smiles. Sometimes, it means she just reacts on instinct, violently and without thinking. But even when she gives an inch, she never fully loses her abrasive and arrogant self, either by mumbling nasty one-liners or darkly joking. The one time she does restrain herself, before attacking the patient she hates most, Violet (Juno Temple), we see her thinking it through, trying not to be taken in by Violet’s taunts, before deciding it isn’t worth it not to react — behaving well won’t help her inside the hospital the way it did outside.
Eventually, Sawyer transforms from a reactive victim to someone merely playing possum. When she finds herself in solitary confinement with David, at first, she drops all the masks. She’s scared, seated in the corner, her arms around her knees, trying to take up as little space as possible. Every time David approaches, she rushes away to the opposite corner. She’s on the verge of tears, shaking just a little, and yet she still speaks clearly and forcefully, telling him she hates him. It’s only once she starts screaming and banging at the door, trying to summon help to no avail, that she takes a few moments to collect herself — head lowered, back against the wall. When she raises her head, she’s transformed into a fighter, but it’s so subtle that David can’t see it. He can’t differentiate between the genuine Sawyer from a moment ago, nearly overwhelmed with despair, and the newly emboldened one who has donned a mask to manipulate him. Suddenly, she’s taunting David, pushing herself into her predator’s space. She has a plan, and she’s ready to use it.
Throughout Unsane, Foy shows us how Sawyer cycles through tactics to try and get what she wants: now stern and scary, barking orders, standing up straight and taking no prisoners; now pleading and ingratiating; resorting to violence in a moment of threat; and finally, pretending to give up with a simper on her face while her body tenses. She tells David she’s complying, but her body and voice tell a different story: she’s wrestling back control. It’s only by putting a mask back on and adapting to the situation that she can find her power.
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Want to read the rest of the book? Order a copy of our new ebook on feminist horror beyond empowertainment here.
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This is an excerpt from the book Beyond Empowertainment: Feminist Horror and the Struggle for Female Agency.
The book contains 20+ chapters on films such as Thelma, Raw, and Perfect Blue.