Franz Kafka’s The Trial opens on a terrifying scene: Joseph K., a mild-mannered bank clerk, wakes up one fine morning to find he’s been placed under arrest for unspecified charges by mysterious agents working for an unnamed agency. It goes downhill from there. The clerk, struggling to discover the exact nature of his guilt, descends into a tangled bureaucracy of civil courts and brothel-like backrooms that increasingly resembles the existential quicksand of a nightmare.
Metaphors abound: Is Joseph K. a victim of evil outside forces? Is he being gaslighted? Is he insane? Or, instead, are we all equally guilty? Is life simply a trial that inevitably ends in madness and pointless death? Is this the price of original sin? The arbitrary injustices of the totalitarian state run amok? Or just one big mind-fuck?
Yes, all of the above, because the very term Kafkaesque implies that the inexplicable webs we get caught up in are not distinct and historic but, instead, an expression of life itself, and all of a piece. At any given moment, and therefore always, we are caught up in cosmic traps we cannot describe, explain or escape.
Unsane, the new film by Steven Soderbergh, begins with a premise that is fetched right out of Kafka: Sawyer Valentini (the wonderful Claire Foy), a victim of stalking, signs up for a support group only to discover that, somehow, she’s become involuntarily committed to a mental institution. What’s worse, her stalker (Joshua Leonard) is, inexplicably, a staff member at the institution, though of course Sawyer’s increasingly violent protests are treated as delusions.
Eventually a fellow inmate (Jay Pharoah) reveals to Sawyer the exact nature of the conspiracy snaring them both, though this information is only a single piece of the puzzle; it explains her captivity, but not her stalking. The screenplay, written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, moves in ever-tightening circles as Sawyer’s isolation and seeming madness are caught in a spiral of coincidence that becomes increasingly evident and absurd.