It’s hard to call Unsane an enjoyable movie-going experience, even if it’s ultimately one that is very worthwhile. There’s just something frustrating about watching a person fall victim to an efficient but unyielding system that can make a viewer rise from their seat and exclaim, “OHMYGOD will you please just let this woman speak!” It’s like watching a much darker version of your typical Ben Stiller comedy. If there were even just a tiny bit of space for the protagonist to explain herself, we could probably get things solved pretty quickly. Then again, if that were the case, there’d be no movie. And we want there to be a movie. Otherwise we’d all just be sitting in rows and staring at a blank wall. That’s no fun.
So no, Unsane is not an easy story to take in, but boy is it a haunting piece of cinema. From its lo-fi filmic style to its almost complete lack of score to its disturbing subject matter, there’s simply no way to avoid being caught up in this strange web, even if one only finds themselves tangled up after the fact.
The plot of Steven Soderbergh’s latest project is best left discovered in the moment. This is partially due to its nature — Unsane is, at its core, a mystery — but also due to its pacing. The first hour or so takes its time stacking up the pieces. Pieces which, if I were to go and reveal even the most basic plot threads, wouldn’t be very exciting to watch as they’re being put into place. As such, I will give you this very, very basic description: Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is new in town. She’s already making waves at her new job, and despite being hundred of miles from her widowed mother, she hopes that this new beginning will help to repair her somewhat unstable emotional state. After visiting a therapist for some mental housecleaning, she finds herself unwittingly committed to an institution in what she believes to be a simple miscommunication. AND THAT’S ALL YOU’RE GETTING FROM ME!
Soderbergh shot the entire movie on an iPhone, and it shows. This is a very basic looking movie, but it is stronger for it. Higher production value would likely highlight some of the seams in the script (which is actually pretty great overall), while the low-quality look lends a pulpy feel to the material. Soderbergh has stated that he chose to film the movie this way to exhibit the way that modern technology has made filmmaking accessible for the masses. His intention is to inspire storytellers to press on with their craft despite financial limitations. For the majority of us, everything we need to make a fully functional movie is in our pocket. I love this notion, but for my money, the real value in this shooting method is that it brings Soderbergh, a filmmaker with enough success under his belt to operate without much limitation, back to his independent roots. By stripping himself of so many luxuries, Soderbergh highlights his mastery of the cinematic language, reminding the audience of his early, independent work. Any Schizopolis fans out there??
Being limited to just an iPhone camera does not mean that we are given only an assembly of static shots, nor does it mean that the film would look better with a “like and subscribe” button in the corner. Soderbergh instead uses the mobility of such a small device to obtain a level of scene coverage that, in lesser hands, could err on the side of oppressive. But here, it manifests as a sort of paranoid energy, which speaks beautifully to the subject matter. Wheelchair dollies, unflattering closeups, shots from oddly surveillant angles — there’s a chunky flow to things that evokes a mixture of the digital clarity of The Girlfriend Experience with the scuzzy, voyeuristic lens of Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
Our star, Claire Foy, is perfectly cast (wonky accent aside) as a woman who oozes confidence and authority without actually having much of either. As she loses her agency to the grip of the mental health facility, we get a thorough character study that is only partially on the page. Foy brings an intensity to the role that is formidable, but is built on her character’s insecurities. At a time where we as a culture are working to figure out the best way to hear and react to the claims of alleged victims of crime and abuse, it’s a daring move to affix the “unreliable narrator” tag to a female protagonist who has undoubtedly survived sexual and emotional mistreatment. Yet the script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer uses this to pull the lens back a bit wider on systemic power abuse. Some may accuse the screenwriters of being wishy-washy in their approach (a defensible position for sure), by not coming down as hard on any one system as it does on the behaviors of those within it, but this ultimately proves to be a more interesting way to let things play out. In thematically tying itself to current social movements without explicitly speaking on them, Unsane reads as a commentary on “the state of things” from sexism to capitalism to mental health to investigative journalism etc.
As previously noted, the purposefully low quality feel of the film serves the material well. This is a smart script, but it is very much of the grindhouse variety. With a sleeker look borne of high production values, I surmise that this would feel a bit off-color. Not tasteless, mind you, but it just wouldn’t line up. One could see an exploitation auteur turning this into something gleefully beyond the pale, but those times are past us, and Soderbergh is smart enough to know it.
Along with Foy we get a chilling performance from Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), as well as an unexpectedly touching one from SNL alum, Jay Pharoah. Juno Temple rolls through to do her thing as well (she’s taken up the “troubled girl” mantle from Taryn Manning) which is always a delight.
Unsane is a difficult film to recommend outside of Soderbergh fans, given that it’s just so atypical to current thriller conventions, but I think that’s what gives it such value. It’s potentially difficult material explored in an unexpected way by a team of excellent performers, all under the thumb of one of our best cinematic storytellers. It’s not often that a movie like this comes along, and this one is very much worth seeing. It may not be for everyone — it’ll certainly upset a few too — but this isn’t the throwaway thriller that one could be forgiven for expecting. Like it or not, you will be thinking about it long after it ends.
I think I know why Soderbergh, despite many claims to the opposite, has still not retired from filmmaking: he’s having too much fun.
Unsane opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.