As has been Steven Soderbergh’s wont after coming out of retirement, Unsane finds the filmmaker splitting the difference between genre mess-around and a meaningful mining of modern anxiety.
The honky-tonk heist of last summer’s Logan Lucky offered a West Virginia valentine to rural life while also acknowledging the attendant heartbreak of its economic hardships. Unsane embraces straight-on psychological-horror tropes, addresses a contemporary unease with technology and women’s harassment, and stylistically indulges in what could be called gigabit giallo.
Sharing its title with the mangled cut of Dario Argento’s Tenebrae as released stateside is another Soderbergh wink-and-nudge; here, he assumes usual aliases for cinematography and editing, and lets composer Thomas Newman in on the gag as the film’s canned-synth beats are credited to “David Wilder Savage.”
Save a Jay Pharoah one-liner or a scene where two longtime working-class lonely hearts flirt in coded coffee language, that’s about it for laughs in Unsane. Filmed on an iPhone 7, a frequently fish-eyed perspective establishes palpable unease: familiar yet foreign, washed out and edge-warped, spatial planes flattened in a genre known for heightened senses working overtime.
That doesn’t mean Soderbergh can’t still show off. A scene in which he uses an iPhone to film an iPhone filming its user on a FaceTime call suggests an infinite loop of how we retreat, and recede, further and further inside portable devices that both empower and erode. Dim hallways trail off into long, telescopic terrors. A stressful moment overlays the front and back of a character’s head into a single image accompanied by mind-fuck needle scratches. Hardly the first to make a film on a phone, Soderbergh crafts dangerous images, like smuggled contraband.
He also infuses a pivotal padded-cell conversation with the unpredictable yanking energy of a Gravitron — uncertain of who will find a foothold against an accelerating centrifugal force of aggression. Of all Soderbergh’s works, Unsane feels most like a carnival ride rigged merely for entertainment. It mostly succeeds, even if pushing the speed too much at the end blows a fuse. And yet by shrinking itself to a 4:3 aspect ratio, Unsane ratchets up a power redolent of right now — visually boxing its heroine, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), into microscopic examination that magnifies judgments in even the most milquetoast environments.
Sawyer has seen her life reduced to the evasion of predatory men and the supposition of bitchiness. A female co-worker at her bank job assumes Sawyer is just toying with a man on the phone by tersely denying “him” funds. (The caller is a woman.) Sawyer’s boss praises her work … then presumes she’ll happily pleasure him at a conference to “advance.” Her early acquiescence to a consensual one-night stand seems like a blissful escape until it instead feels like her living down to people’s expectations of her, and her nerves shatter.
We learn Sawyer has fled to this life out of necessity. In Boston, a stalker (Joshua Leonard) inserted himself into her occupational, personal, digital and, eventually, living space. She sees his face on bank customers, men at the bar, everywhere. Unmoored from any support system, Sawyer Googles for help, where Highland Creek Behavioral Center promises a counseling haven.
However, after Sawyer shows the slightest inkling of inclination to self-harm — and is told it’s up to her whether she reads fine print on the papers she signs — she finds herself “voluntarily” committed for 24 hours. When Sawyer sees her stalker’s face on an orderly and instinctively strikes him, it becomes a weeklong stretch in a space shared by Violet (Juno Temple), a Pennsatucky-like patient with a thirst for antagonism, and Nate (Pharoah), a sarcastic, seasoned navigator of the mental health system finishing up a stint for opioid detox.
As Sawyer continues to see her tormentor’s face, we’re meant to wonder whether she’s losing her mind or if it could really be him. Regardless, who can possibly help her when she’s the one who signed her own admission papers? The setup is similar to last year’s A Cure for Wellness, but just as Soderbergh chooses real-world sterility over widescreen opulence, he forgoes gothic flourish for decisive answers — which, admittedly, come earlier than expected.
(A side note that may have you questioning what’s real and what’s fake: Unsane comes from the screenwriting team behind Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector and Jackie Chan’s The Spy Next Door. Either James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein have been having a profitable laugh for a good, long while or Soderbergh fleshed out their concept and left them the bone of credit.)
Some may argue Unsane’s storytelling choices minimize it into a more perfunctory potboiler. That would deny the very real threats faced by many actual women in Sawyer’s dramatized predicament — that persecution is just paranoid hysteria, aggression is just the natural order of things to which they should accustom themselves, that the best way to address being targeted is to trade freedom for monastic seclusion … that maybe they should just smile more, huh? A cameo from a famous face with well-documented real-world cluelessness about these problems seems to shatter Unsane‘s thoughtfulness … until the more his character talks, the more he hammers the point home.
Unsane also renders such toxicity into a tactile threat against which Sawyer can retaliate. In doing so, it allows Foy a fine about-face from her work on The Crown — finding a ferocious, strategically pugnacious energy once Sawyer realizes there’s no one left to help her but herself.
Perhaps a female creative team might have more deeply challenged one very unsettling, but waved-off, manner in which Sawyer uses her own privilege to gain an upper hand. Someone who didn’t make the so-so Side Effects wouldn’t have flirted with that film’s fraudulent-medicine aspects in a way that clutters more than it clears. And an obliteration of disbelief required to arrive at a couple more iPhone tricks … well, OK. Forgive that a bit. Unsane is otherwise incisive horror, Soderbergh-style.