Director Steven Soderbergh’s post-“retirement” career is kicking into high gear, with the release of his third project in roughly seven months. Like the feature film Logan Lucky and the interactive serial Mosaic, his new movie Unsane is a genre piece. But it’s one informed by Soderbergh’s semi-infamous experimental side, as he shot this psychodrama entirely on iPhones. Unsane also shares some DNA with Soderbergh’s underrated 2013 thriller Side Effects, which used the common over-reliance on pharmaceuticals as a springboard for narrative mind games.
Like Rooney Mara in Side Effects, Unsane‘s beleaguered heroine, Sawyer Valentini (The Crown‘s Claire Foy), is also a victim of modern health care, thanks to a legal insurance scam perpetrated by her would-be mental health saviors.
Sawyer is the victim of stalking, which has forced her to abandon her life as she knew it. She has moved hundreds of miles, but still finds herself haunted by paranoid visions of her stalker. Finally, she breaks down and seeks help. When she reveals to her counselor that, yes, she has had suicidal thoughts in her past, the counselor hands her some paperwork to sign and, before she knows it, she is remanded to the custody of the facility.
As a Type A person with control issues, Sawyer does not react to this development calmly. She uses her phone privileges to call the cops (they do nothing), she bristles at following orders, and she feuds with the scary-delusional white trash girl in the bed beside her (Wonder Wheel‘s Juno Temple). Comedian Jay Pharoah plays relative long-timer Nate, who befriends Sawyer and tells her to keep her head down. “You make it sound like we’re in prison,” Sawyer says, to which Nate just shrugs.
The film toys with the idea that Sawyer is starting to lose her grip, when she freaks out and declares that one of the attendants (Joshua Leonard, of The Blair Witch Project and HBO’s Togetherness) is her stalker. Foy’s performance serves this ambiguity perfectly. Her version of Sawyer is constantly intense, even when she is trying to stay calm and appear as reasonable and straightforward as possible. Leonard also hits the right notes of overplayed “nice guy” affability that viewers could easily see masking a darker soul.
But, to its credit, Unsane doesn’t leave its characters, or its audience, too long in the dark about everyone’s intentions. The terror of Unsane stems less from the unreliability of one’s own mind than from the mechanisms that are supposedly there to help Sawyer which actually prevent her from escaping torment. She is essentially left waiting around to end up dead, or left to wait for the insurance to stop paying for her hospital bed. Whichever comes first.
For the most part, Unsane is a satisfyingly tense thriller. The supporting cast — which also includes Amy Irving as Sawyer’s supportive mom — creates a grounded atmosphere that makes the events of the film all-too-believable. (Juno Temple is a little cartoony, but arguably the script doesn’t offer her a ton to work with.) Meanwhile, Soderbergh’s use of the iPhone cameras is far from a gimmick. It creates an immediacy that is effectively unsettling. In the beginning, the images are locked-off and sharply edited (when Sawyer is “in control”), but the style mutates, incorporating more movement and longer takes (once Sawyer is uncertain — and trapped).
One could argue that Unsane‘s third act is a little overstuffed. The film tries to fully resolve its emotional dramatic beats and then frantically jams in a slew of jolts and pulpy thrills, in an attempt to leave everyone satisfied. Ironically, this final stretch left many of the people at my screening grumbling as they walked out. But, to these eyes, the flaws of the finale are not great enough to derail the flick.
For years, Steven Soderbergh has been pegged as a filmmaker who ping-pongs between mainstream commercial fare and potentially alienating indie experiments. Unsane merges these sensibilities well, putting the focus on performance and atmosphere without getting too lost in the weeds of process. This isn’t just one for the film buffs. If you just want to get creeped out, you’ll have fun too.
Unsane opens in theaters this Friday, March 23.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.