A new Steven Soderbergh film is always appointment viewing, and his latest, the psychological thriller Unsane, is no exception, even though it falls into his sort-of-slight “tech demo” category alongside The Good German and Bubble.
Yes, this is the goddamn movie he shot an iPhone 7+ in secret this past summer, the one that had the film press salivating with the possibilities of new Soderbergh so soon right after Logan Lucky, and it is, as expected, a bit of a mixed bag. Sure, the story is there and the characters are interesting, but the pointed (and tonally justified) camera just kind of makes things, well, not so pretty. Still, Unsane is well worth the time one will take in order to see it, and there’s a lot here to love if you’re willing to endure the visuals. You can feel the Sam Fuller and Milosz Forman influences working on Soderbergh here, but it’s still entirely his creation.
Anyways, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, playing a character with a name only a screenwriter could think up) is troubled and slightly lost in life. She’s relocated to a new city from Boston, and she’s having trouble making friends and finding new people to meet, preferring anonymous online hookups to any sort of close connection. She’s kept the real reasoning behind her move — because a man, David (Joshua Leonard), was stalking her back in the city — a secret from her mother (Amy Irving), and eventually the burden of that secret, coupled with PTSD-like symptoms, forces her to contact a therapist in a psychiatric facility. Upon her first visit, the therapist asks her if she’s ever considered suicide, and she says that she has. This causes the hospital (a for-profit enterprise, perhaps gunning for insurance money at the expense of the patients that they claim to help) to keep her on an involuntary 24 hour hold. Sawyer’s outraged — she’s not crazy, of course — and comes to think that her stalker might be working in the hospital where she’s being kept.
Foy is solid as Sawyer, though she happens to be from that London neighborhood of Boston that I’ve never been to (you know, the one where everyone has an English accent). She’s just unhinged enough to cause you to question her sanity, which creates enough of a fog to preserve the later twists, and I’m really curious to see how differently her performance reads on another viewing, knowing what I know now. It would have been very easy for Soderbergh and his writers to make a generic film, one that presented you with an absolute, and it’s admirable that they didn’t make that choice (likewise, it feels that whatever political messaging present in the original drafts about the evils of institutions like this, were toned down somewhat, albeit less successfully).
The supporting performers are, for the most part, solid — Irving and Jay Pharaoh, here cast as a particularly wise patient who seems like he might have all his marbles despite his circumstance, make decent impressions — and the only misfire in the whole bunch comes from the usually phenomenal Juno Temple, who struggles after being given a role free of depth and an ignominious end. Joshua Leonard, playing the potential stalker in question, has a ton of fun, and he’s able to be spine-tinglingly evil at points while never losing sight of just how fucking pathetic his character is. His verbal conflicts with Foy, especially near the climax of the film, are a lot of fun to watch, and they manage to liven up the film in a way that it hadn’t been previously. There’s a whole lot here to mine subtextually, and I’m interested in seeing audience reactions to this film, especially depending on the person’s gender.
Look, I’m not going to lie to you: Performances and script aside, a lot of this is going to hinge on how much you like the cinematography, which is tonally/texturally fitting and absolutely ass-ugly. Soderbergh wanted to emphasize the grime of the for-profit institution and also through the audience off balance with how the iPhone captures perspective (it’s like watching a Lifetime hospital drama through a fish-eye lens), and though he’s done so with flying colors, it just grated on me throughout the runtime.
It’s one of those necessary films on the path towards the refinement and standardization of a technology, much like Tape or his own Bubble served as for the current crop of digital video cameras, but it’s most definitely not there yet and assuredly required a ton of extra post-production work in order to make it presentable. And as for the democratization of said tech, someone can go out and shoot a film like Unsane on their phone, but it takes money and an extensive amount of manpower to make this presentable enough for some college student to text through on their date night. Still, Unsane has enough narrative drive to compel the viewer to put away their own devices, and that in and of itself is a success, I guess. It’s no Ocean’s Twelve, but what is?
Featured image via Fingerprint Releasing/Bleecker Street.