Film Review: Unsane
One of Steven Soderbergh's Riskiest Experiments Produces One of His Most Thrilling Films
One of the most decorated directors of the past few decades, Steven Soderbergh has made a name for himself with his daring forays into experimental filmmaking. In some ways, Soderbergh challenges the very concept of the auteur filmmaker: with no trademark look or style, his diverse filmography ranges from mainstream blockbusters like the Ocean's films, to micro-scale stunt-casted indies like The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire, to prestige period television like The Knick. Soderbergh's latest film, Unsane, is a thrilling master class in suspense that works in tandem with Soderbergh's eye for experimentation, but it's not for everyone. Mild spoilers ahead...
If you're looking to see a film steeped in beautiful cinematography, Steven Soderbergh's latest shot-on-an-iPhone thriller Unsane probably won't deliver. With blurred faces, grainy low-light camera performance, and a generally muddy malaise that permeates the film, at no point will Unsane actually trick you into thinking that you're seeing anything other than a filmmaking experiment shot on an iPhone 7. Soderbergh was seemingly so enamored with shooting on the Apple smartphone that he is contemplating fully-committing to the method in his future projects -and while I see the nimbleness and versatility (Soderbergh uses a bevy of fish-eye lenses, filters, and extreme angles to enhance his shots) that it can afford, I can't quite agree with the esteemed director that the iPhone is the next best thing in cinema. It is, however, perfect for a film like Unsane. A brief and skin-deep meditation on stalking and gaslighting, the film is a strangely prescient thriller in the time of #MeToo and the Trump political landscape, and the low-fi nature of the iPhone does a tremendous job in capturing the spirit of confusion, paranoia, and despair that seeps through the movie and its characters.
Unsane follows young finance professional Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, flexing acting muscles far removed from her composed performance on Netflix's The Crown), who is starting a new job in a new city after being tormented by a former client-turned-stalker for nearly two years. Still reeling from the trauma of the unrelenting creepiness of her unwanted suitor, Sawyer signs up for an impromptu counseling session at a facility called Highland Creek. Things take a dark and Kafkaesque turn when a passing mention of suicidal thoughts marks her file, and she unwittingly signs away her freedom for a 24-hour observational period. Matters get even worse when an altercation with an unruly fellow patient (Juno Temple) extends her stay for a whole week. As it turns out, the entire operation is a shady for-profit facility that bilks insurance companies by committing people like Sawyer for extended stays on technicalities, and she strikes up a friendship with a patient named Nate (Jay Pharaoh, in a subdued yet affable performance), a supposed opiate addict who helps her navigate the ins and outs of the corrupt program. The film ratchets the suspense even more as it reaches the meat of the story, when David Strine (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project), her old stalker, shows up as an orderly at the hospital, and Sawyer's mental state deteriorates even further, wondering if she's truly gone insane. It’s here that Soderbergh’s free-wheeling iPhone cinematography adds value, with erratic movements and hand-held dolly shots that mimic Sawyer’s descent into helplessness, and a raw straight-out-of-the-phone scratchiness that fully captures the ugliness of Highland Creek.
The sanity guessing game is one of my least favorite tropes in all of cinema. Along with its close cousins "it was all in his or her head" and "it was all a dream," it is one of the most tired narrative devices: a cheap twist that robs a story of agency and impact in exchange for a quick "gotcha" moment. Thankfully, Soderbergh nips the clichéd “is she going crazy or not” and "is David real or not" mysteries in the bud fairly quickly. The script plays coy at first, allowing Sawyer’s neuroses and off-kilter tics to suggest an instability that puts her mental health in question, especially when David shows up as helpful orderly “George.” But sometime near the halfway mark, Soderbergh definitively puts all doubts to rest, and the film seemingly jumps genres into a white-knuckle suspense thriller that works like gangbusters, piling misfortune after misfortune upon poor Sawyer with a refreshing clarity. The "is Sawyer crazy" charade takes up the perfect length of time and doesn't wear out its welcome - the script knows when it's gotten enough mileage out of the game and wisely moves onto more interesting ideas in the second half of the film.
What also carries Unsane is the strong performances from the minimal cast. Claire Foy, with whom I am most familiar with as the Queen from Netflix’s The Crown , plays American quite convincingly and does well with material miles away from the royal composure of her most well known role. A jangle of nerves and manic energy, Foy infuses Sawyer with realness and easily invites sympathy from the audience as she endures the horrors of the Highland Creek. Speaking of horror, Joshua Leonard, who portrays Sawyer’s stalker David and “George,” is equally fantastic. Lonely, pathetic, and utterly terrifying, Leonard’s David is an unrelenting harasser that is worthy of both pity and fear at the same time. One can easily extrapolate the character into the real world #MeToo era with his relentless pursuit and the deranged lengths he will go to close in on the target of his obsession. Rounding out the cast, Jay Pharaoh, Juno Temple, and Amy Irving as Sawyer's doting mother do great work fleshing out the world of Unsane's ancillary characters, and a cute cameo deep into the film's second act also brings forth some chuckles.
Whether it's casting a pornographic actress as the lead in The Girlfriend Experience, or an MMA fighter in Haywire, or designing a prestige drama that is also an app experience with HBO's Mosaic, Steven Soderbergh has always been pushing the envelope when it comes to experimental filmmaking. The iPhone may not crank out the prettiest results, but Soderbergh has earned the right to experiment whatever way he chooses, and Unsane is a quick and dirty exercise with a smartphone that just happens to be an expertly crafted B-movie thriller, just don't expect it to be anything more.