"Think of your cell phone as your enemy"
–Uncredited character from Unsane
The never-really-retired Steven Soderbergh has “returned” from the realm of television with two inspired—and utterly dissimilar—theatrical features. Logan Lucky found the director working in the caper genre for the first time since Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) but with a distinctly Southern flavor. While that was tinged with typically unconventional choices, it’s his latest film in which Soderbergh’s idiosyncrasies are on full display. Shot secretly on an iPhone on the cheap (relatively speaking) and announced only a few months before its Berlinale premiere, Unsane is his most unabashedly pulpy film and yet fits in aesthetically with his earliest digital explorations, Bubble (2005) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009).
The opening of the film sets the tone for what is a surprising and expressive experiment, a blued out eerie shot that unevenly creeps through a forest while a man’s voice impassively delivers romantic platitudes. Only later in the film will this come to make sense. Claire Foy plays a successful businesswoman named Sawyer newly relocated to Pennsylvania. She seems tough and in control, and on a rushed work break assures her mother over the phone that everything is perfect. Fast forward a couple of scenes and we discover that her reasons for moving revolve around her attempt to escape a stalker who was harassing her relentlessly in her native Boston. An impersonal Tinder date leads to a tryst abruptly brought to a halt in her apartment when she sees a delusion of the face of her stalker in a would-be one-night stand partner. A trip to a psychiatric clinic and a session with a therapist seems to go encouragingly well until it turns out she should have read the fine print before filling out a form she’s assured is “boiler plate.” Thus, Sawyer is unwillingly committed to a mental ward.
From here the film shifts into comic nightmare as she is forced to undress in front of a nurse, surrender her possessions, and join a shifty group of fellow inpatients who appear to be “actually crazy.” A scenario that taps into a universal fear of misdiagnosis and wrongful captivity, Sawyer is the sane one in the asylum, and considering that we each have our own baggage, it feels like anyone could have ended up in her position. However, as soon as she’s integrated into the ward, the differences between her and the others seem to shrink. Compared to the mostly docile occupants, Sawyer is the most distraught and disruptive, quickly earning marks against her record that extend her initial 24-hour commitment to seven days.
At first we fear for Sawyer, but eventually grow to distrust her mental state, an oscillating dynamic that toys with our understanding of the protagonist and what we’re seeing. This creates phenomenal tension in the film’s first half, before things become more clarified and the film’s pleasures (and displeasures) become more base. Later, Unsane starts to feel more like an exercise than a lively work of stylistic indulgence. So the main character and the viewer are gaslit in turn, making this a rather timely tale that toes the line between overt feminist commentary, about a woman recovering from abuse who no one will listen to or believe, and purely frivolous genre playfulness. Alongside Foy and Juno Temple, who plays Violent, an inpatient who immediately takes to making Sawyer’s life hell, Soderbergh populates the film with comic actors (Jay Pharoah, Zach Cherry, Robert Kelly), and the casting of The Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard is a nod to that film’s singular spirit—it’s an odd mix of players that equals the film’s tonal mélange.
While each shot setup has a formal precision that is unmistakably the work of its director, the film nevertheless finds Soderbergh working in a fresh mode. Unsane is funny and wholly disconcerting, not alternately but in tandem, a tension of clashing moods that exaggerate the paranoia and surreality of the plot. The grainy, glossless mise en scène brings more worry and paranoia in the unforgiving rendering of faces and the sterile surroundings. Deliberately ugly, the aesthetic connotes realism, but Soderbergh enters full avant-garde mode in a drugged-out sequence that overlays two shots, one of Sawyer from behind and one from the front, fixed on her head as she moves about frantically in opposite directions, pulling our eyes dizzyingly in each as she loses her grip. It’s the kind of astonishing passage that the film could have used more of, as things align more predictably in its sensationalist third act, but the film never ceases to be strange.
Soderbergh is a curious filmmaker whose technical and stylistic obsessions are an imposing force in all his movies, and yet he, with few exceptions, always feels to be so removed and absent. His modernist and academic nature make him hard to read as an auteur, but there’s no questioning the purposefulness and conviction with which he crafts his films. Unsane might not be a major movie, but it’s the sort of impassioned experiment afforded by new tech that one hopes more established directors would take advantage of. Keeping things interesting for its entire duration, Unsane never settles down, shifting and evolving with clever narrative design. In a director’s oeuvre that moves so nonchalantly from mainstream cultural products to openly experimental endeavors and everywhere in between, this slight B-movie stands as one of Soderbergh’s most memorable and perversely urgent.