'Unsane': Film Review | Berlin 2018
Claire Foy gets a raw deal on mental health care in Steven Soderbergh's low-budget indie shocker about a woman in mortal danger either real or imagined.
If last year's cheerful redneck heist comedy, Logan Lucky, showed director Steven Soderbergh shaking off thoughts of retirement from features with evident enjoyment, it's harder to discern what got him back in the director's chair for Unsane. A genre quickie shot on the quiet using iPhones, this lurching psychothriller stars a persuasively rattled Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini, whose stalker complex, not her absurd name, lands her in the nuthouse (as it used to be so quaintly called). "Rationally, I know my neuroses are colluding with my imagination," she tells the counselor who admits her. "But I'm not rational." Or is she?
That's the key question early on, visually teased out in the way Soderbergh (under his cinematographer pseudonym Peter Andrews) shoots her from a voyeuristic distance in the opening scenes, at times semi-obscured by foliage or other physical impediments. Are her fears real or delusional? Even Sawyer is unsure. But the hack screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer gives the game away far too early, squandering the main thing the movie has going for it.
Press materials are plastered with requests not to reveal "the characters' secrets," and I'll do my best to comply (though consider this a spoiler alert, just in case something slips). Whether Sawyer is in the grip of insanity or a hellish trap of legitimate physical danger, Unsane is a dispiritingly pedestrian woman-in-peril shocker to have come from such a maverick filmmaker. Full of preposterously contrived plotting and authority figures all too conveniently terrible at their jobs or just looking the other way, it grows progressively less involving throughout its crescendo of escalating paranoia, menace and bloody mayhem.
When word of the project surfaced, it seemed fair to hope Soderbergh might put a mischievous contemporary spin on madhouse classics like Shock Corridor or The Snake Pit, or go full-throttle exploitation, demolishing Foy's poised intelligence by dropping her character into a lockbox of over-the-top loonies. But aside from a few shuffling catatonics, that latter constituency here is chiefly represented by Juno Temple's Violet, a tampon-tossing trashy Southerner with a head covered in stringy braids and an instant animosity toward Sawyer. Unsane doesn’t even give you much in the way of lurid fun.
Nor does it deliver psychological complexity, despite Foy's unstinting commitment to a role that often subjects her to unblinking, sweaty closeups of darting-eyed anxiety and corrosive self-doubt. While she plays American with convincing ease, this was a dud choice for Foy's first U.S. film after her breakout attention in The Crown.
Sawyer, it emerges early, has abruptly relocated from Boston to Pennsylvania, leaving behind her doting widowed mother, Angela (Amy Irving, wasted), with little explanation. She's performing well in her finance data analyst position, though the smarmy overtures of her boss clearly make it no dream job. Her soured view of relationships is suggested when she informs a dating-site hookup at the outset that the evening will end with the physical payoff he hopes for, but there can be no sequel.
Unnerved by fleeting glimpses of a bearded man she thinks she recognizes (Joshua Leonard of The Blair Witch Project fame, whose casting in itself is practically a spoiler), Sawyer seeks help from a professional supposedly equipped to deal with the lingering emotional disturbances of stalker victims. But the wrong answer to a line of questioning about suicidal impulses, plus some evasive muttering from the clinician about "standard paperwork," leads to her signing a consent form for voluntary 24-hour commitment at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center.
There might be some sardonic humor in this stunning advertisement for the bottom line-driven profiteering of the American health care industry, if only the movie's ludicrous plot justified any kind of real-world association. Sawyer's alarm ("This is all a terrible mistake!") turns to rage as her volatile outbursts stretch a day into a week. Meanwhile, opioid-addicted fellow patient Nate (SNL's Jay Pharoah) begins whispering about Highland's shady business practices, designed merely to milk patients' insurance until it runs out.
Corrupt conspiracy or cold fact? Foy's bubbling jitters as Sawyer attempts to reason with or charm the center's staff are designed to keep us guessing, as is the impersonal detachment of the supervising medic (Gibson Frazier) and the boilerplate reassurances of the corporate administrator (Aimee Mullins, disconcertingly giving Sawyer some competition in the crazy stakes). And is that night attendant who's in charge of distributing meds the mystery figure from Sawyer's past or is she becoming too deeply unhinged to tell the difference?
That doubt doesn't stick around long, and if you're still unclear by the time Sawyer is subjected to some good old-fashioned padded-cell confinement, you haven't been paying attention. The scripting becomes simply too predictable and the dialogue too routine to keep it interesting. Soderbergh's enervated editing (under his usual alias, Mary Ann Bernard) seldom locates a pulse in the feeble material, let alone one that keeps racing. There are one or two decent scares late in the action, but little that genre fans won't see coming.
It's hard to know what to make of the choice to shoot on iPhones beyond the unencumbered expediency it provided to the off-the-radar, small-crew production. The agility of such small cameras allows for a lot of needling observation of characters at close range, as well as the occasional weird angle to echo the thriller's elements of destabilizing disorientation. But unlike Sean Baker's fabulous Tangerine, the first movie of note shot on iPhone — in which the immersive visuals had both thematically appropriate scrappiness and surprising cinematic sheen — Unsane mostly just looks drab. It's also distinctly unflattering on many of the actors, though perhaps that was the desired effect.
It's arguable that anyone stumbling over this unsubtle, overcooked B-movie in the genre cue of whatever streaming platform it hits soon after the March theatrical release would know it's the work of Steven Soderbergh without reading the credits. Perhaps the chief giveaway is an unbilled cameo in a nothing role by an A-list alumnus of the director's most commercially successful franchise.
I'll admit I was in the minority camp on Logan Lucky, finding that the good-time friskiness of major-name stars playing the hee-haw yokel counterpart to Danny Ocean's slick scammers wore thin even faster than the caper's strenuous plot contortions. But in the wasteland of last summer, most critics were enthusiastic (audiences less so), perhaps in part as a welcome-back to a versatile talent emerging from career hiatus. Soderbergh's esteemed reputation aside, it's difficult to imagine too many pundits lining up to endorse this minor effort with the same generous spirit.
Distributors: Fingerprint Releasing, Bleecker Street
Production companies: Extension 765, New Regency
Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving, Raul Castillo, Gibson Frazier
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriters: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Producer: Joseph Malloch
Executive producers: Ken Meyer, Arnon Milchan, Dan Fellman
Director of photography: Peter Andrews
Production designer: April Lasky
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Music: David Wilder Savage
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
Visual effects supervisor: Lesley Robson-Foster
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Rated R; 98 minutes