*** out of ****
(for djsturbing behavior, violence, strong language, and sex references)
Released: March 23, 2018
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Claire Foy, Jay Pharoah, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Juno Temple, Polly McKie, Aimee Mullins
Give it enough time and it starts to make sense.
Initially, Unsane feels like an overlong Black Mirror episode done on the cheap. The first half-hour drags with repetitive beats but, eventually, it comes together.
It’s Steven Soderbergh’s second film back from “retirement” (following last fall’s hick heist Logan Lucky) and it’s an effective thriller, especially for the current #MeToo zeitgeist, despite a less than effective low budget form that dilutes rather than maximizes its full potential.
Shot entirely on an iPhone 7, Unsane often appears driven more by Soderbergh’s fascination with experimentation than storytelling. The format is as cut-rate as the bare bones production values.
The Oscar-winning director seems particularly curious about how much he can pull off for how little, but not in striving for what’s actually best for the material. A strong lead performance by The Crown’s Claire Foy, however, makes up for a lot, as does some ingenious 2nd and 3rd act plotting by screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer.
Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a woman struggling with some personal issues that, after a routine counseling session with a therapist, inadvertently finds herself committed to a mental institution against her will. From there the film plays up the expected construct, a.k.a. “Who’s really the crazy one here, them or her?” The more she protests her sanity the more insane she comes off.
Soderbergh milks that a bit longer than he needs to (the first thirty minutes could’ve been a tighter fifteen or twenty), but just when you feel like you might be in for a monotonous slog, a curveball from Sawyer’s past is thrown into the mix. Discovering if this new element is real or imagined gives the film a necessary jolt, and Soderbergh does an expert job in revealing what’s true and what isn’t.
I just wish it was more enjoyable to watch.
Unsane is a genre exercise minus the genre style, or any style for that matter. Soderbergh crafts some interesting angles and frames here and there, but on the whole this is a grungy, at times ugly looking experiment that feels compromised rather than inspired. More digression than evolution, Unsane looks and plays like a first-time effort from a young filmmaker with potential, not an auteur hitting a new creative stride, phase, or peak.
There’s some interesting political and social critiques here – from dehumanizing profit-driven medical care to toxic masculinity in the social media age – but they’re shoehorned together, both thematically and dramatically. A few plot holes pop up as a result, ones that the stripped-down milieu can’t mask.
At times, scenes even feel like desperate regional theater, overplayed in an attempt to compensate for the low production quality. (A padded cell sequence comes to mind.) Foy remains committed all the way through, forgive the pun, but I wish Soderbergh’s aesthetic felt the same.
Unsane ultimately works, often in spite of itself (which isn’t a dumb-luck fluke), but unless Soderbergh can come up with ways to craft better visual experiences than this, I’m not looking forward to his newfound resolve to shoot exclusively on iPhones for the rest of his career. He’ll continue to make good movies, but it’s hard to imagine him making a great one.
But hey, maybe I’m the crazy one.