By: Will Ashton (Two Beers) –
Steven Soderbergh likes to challenge himself. The filmmaker is never content to settle for one genre or one tone or one medium or even one style of filmmaking during his ever-expanding career. He is a renaissance man. He adapts with the times. And the times, they are a’changin’. You don’t need big, expensive cameras — digital or otherwise — to make a film. You have the power to shoot an entire movie on your iPhone — if you will it. And Soderbergh embraces our changing landscape. With Unsane, his newest film after August’s Logan Lucky and his follow-up to the app-focused HBO mini-series Mosaic, released in January (remember when he said he was retiring?), the seasoned filmmaker shoots his first full movie on an iPhone, a tradition he expects to keep for the foreseeable future. How does his newest experiment favor? Pretty well! Is it his best work? Certainly not. Is it his worst work? Most certainly not.
A frequently anxiety-inducing, darkly comedic, captivatingly high strung B-movie with deliberate commentary, Unsane is more than a gimmick. It’s a taut, fraught, paranoid psychological thriller for the #MeToo era. Made all the more intriguing with its present, innovative filmmaking, Soderbergh presents another sharp, absorbing, ingeniously unsettling picture. A fine companion piece to his own overlooked 2013 mind-twister Side Effects, Unsane isn’t a masterwork but it’s the work of a master nonetheless. Even with the limitations presented with his newfound camera, Soderbergh crafts a ’70s-esque thriller with modern flourishes, the kind of movie arriving between two different ages of filmmaking. It won’t be the movie Soderbergh is remembered for, likely, and it isn’t one that shows the full scope of his cinematic prowess. But it’s an intriguing, engrossing movie – one that’ll inspire quite a few conversations.
Unsane is told from the perspective of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a smart, confident, independent, forward-thinking businesswoman burdened by her past. Having escaped a stalker who hovered over her life for two years, Sawyer has begun anew in a new town with a new job. Her life is remarkably more steady than before, but she’s still troubled. Seeking out a support group for victims of harassment, Sawyer visits a nearby hospital to speak to a counselor. What starts as a simple consultation takes an unsettling turn, however, when she unwittingly signs documents that commit her to 24 hours inside the hospital’s psychiatric ward. Professing her sanity at every available opportunity, Sawyer only makes herself seem more unrattled, prompting her visit to remain longer and longer. She doesn’t make friends easily, though she eventually forms a correspondence with the cool, seemingly level-headed Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), the only one inside the ward with a cell phone. Sawyer also makes a firm enemy with another patient, Violet (Juno Temple), whom our protagonist is often seen conflicting with. But that’s nothing compared to what she soon discovers: that her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), is an orderly there.
At least, that’s what Sawyer sees. Though, of course, no one else believes her. As she spends more and more time trapped within the confinements of the psychiatric ward, Sawyer’s sanity is questioned further.
To reveal much more would be a disservice. Soderbergh’s newest film is best left experienced from there.
Rather than become a hindrance, Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone camerawork actually adds layers to the overall commentary of Unsane. A stalker tale for the technological 21st century, the paranoia comes from knowing that a stalker could be lurking at any moment, at any point in time, through our Internet era. It is nearly impossible to be invisible in the 21st century. You are always present; you can always be seen. It is a chilling reminder made more evocative by Soderbergh’s iPhone. The distorted, unconventional angles that Soderbergh captures — both as a director and cinematographer, per usual — can be considered more “amateurish” than a usual Soderbergh production based on the lo-fi production values. But these shots are very successful at making you unbalanced, uneased. They make everything not quite right, and never completely asymmetrical. It’s the anti-Wes Anderson. And that’s very effective for Unsane.
From jarring close-ups to deskside medium angles, Unsane is clearly Soderbergh playing with his visual approach here. If the story wasn’t compelling, you could see this newest project as more of an experiment in style than in storytelling, but Soderbergh is competent enough to not let his visual stylings overtake the importance of the central story. While it does take some time to get used to the unusual look of Unsane, especially if you see it projected on the big screen (based on the box office results, not many of you did…), once you’ve settled into its oddball groove, you quickly become enamored by its presentation.
Also, Claire Foy is magnificent here. All the central performances are stellar. But Foy is doing wonders here, providing so much emotional, physical, and psychological heavy work throughout the course of this twisty movie that you are completely captivated by the spellbinding work she presents. While Soderbergh knows how to shoot, direct, and edit a heck of a movie, even one on his phone, it’s ultimately Foy who makes or breaks the film. Thankfully, her emotive, deeply thoughtful performance shines.
There is a twist midway through the movie that you will probably see coming. It’s not hard to guess, and it makes the movie worse during the middle segment. It adds a whole bunch of questions Unsane simply can’t answer — at least, not completely, or reasonably. In certain respects, it leaves you more confused than satisfied by the end. And that’s a shame, because the first half of Soderbergh’s movie — while playing a familiar game of she is/isn’t she cray cray — is far more interesting and commanding. But then the third act comes in, and Unsane finds its footing again. It raises bigger, meatier, more timely questions, ones that can relate directly to today’s movements, and it provides intriguing fuel to our hellfire times.
I won’t say more, but I will say this: expect some thoughtful, intensive conversations to follow afterward.
Unsane is a fascinating nightmare, the work of one of our most prolific filmmakers working at full speed. It isn’t without its creaks, but at its best, it’s some of Soderbergh’s most compelling filmmaking this decade. It will disturb and rattle you, but it’ll also make you question the world around you — particularly one surrounded with so much technology, including the computer you might be holding, or the iPhone that you are reading this review on. When making a movie, an iPhone can have its obvious limits. For Soderbergh, it opens a new window of filmmaking, one that’ll inspire him to make bolder choices.
In terms of genre, Unsane is a tribute to a past. Through its inventive filmmaking, it’s a look at the future.
Unsane (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Sawyer claims she’s sane!
Take a Drink: every time a weird camera angle throws you off.
Take a Drink: anytime a phone or iPhone is mentioned or seen. (Double sip if it’s said AND seen.)
Take a Drink: every time you question Sawyer’s sanity (or insanity.)
Do a Shot: whenever the big twist is revealed.
Do another Shot: for the next big shocking reveal.