Unsane: Off with Your Meds, by David Bax
As long as Sean Baker’s Tangerine exists, all Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane can hope for is to be the second best feature film shot entirely on an iPhone. Happily, that’s exactly what it is. Soderbergh gains points by baking the device’s totemic weight into the very form of a story that serves partially as a comment on it. He does this mostly by making no attempt to hide the provenance of his images. Unsane has a consistently smeary, wide angle lens look, immediately recognizable to anyone as webcam-style footage. The obliteration of privacy and the ease of surveillance for those so motivated in our modern, connected world is laid bare. The history of cinema is full of thrillers and mysteries that could quickly be resolved by the existence of smartphones. Now we get one caused by them.
Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a career-minded striver who has recently relocated from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania for a job. Understandably stressed out, she visits a psychiatrist who, after a short consultation, has Sawyer involuntarily committed to an institution where she’s cut off from the outside world with the exception of a contraband iPhone in the possession of another patient (Jay Pharoah). Just when things seem they can’t get worse, she finds that the man who stalked her and made her life hell in Boston (Joshua Leonard) has followed her the hundreds of miles to her new home and been hired as a nurse’s aide at the institution. Or has he? Is it possible Sawyer truly is mentally ill and that this man is a figment of her unwell mind?
There’s an established narrative concerning Soderbergh’s career that posits a bifurcation taking place around the late 90s or early 00s. Some would have us believe that, starting with Out of Sight or possibly Erin Brockovich, depending on your take, he began accepting hired gun, journeyman gigs and then alternating them with personal projects. This is an unfair simplification of his work that undervalues the idiosyncrasies of his star-studded movies. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that, aesthetically, Unsane has more in common with Full Frontal than with Ocean’s Eleven. The iPhone offers adaptability due to its size but also homogeneity with its limited optical zoom. The resulting movie recalls the run and gun, turn of the 21st century mini-DV indies like Chuck & Buck or Session 9.
Of all Soderbergh’s films, though, the one of which I was most reminded is the last theatrical release before the retirement that never was, Side Effects. Unsane’s plot hinges on the existence of a health insurance system that reduces human beings to dollar signs in the same way Side Effects portrayed doctors more interested in kickbacks and perks from pharmaceutical companies than in how their products might help people. In both cases, these healthcare issues are practically red herrings, quickly tossed aside as the films dive into labyrinths of plot turns. In Side Effects, the result was almost offensively thickheaded. Unsane, even though I’m sure Soderbergh doesn’t see it this way, is a kind of corrective response. This time around, the movie only gets better as it becomes more heightened. It’s an increasingly satisfying—and increasingly dark—twisty thriller.
That’s because of a Soderbergh trait that is sometimes overlooked. Part of the reason this maverick auteur was so adaptable to mainstream entertainments for so long is that, to put it simply, he loves a good yarn. Sure, he’s made more abstract and indulgent features like Solaris and Schizopolis but for the most part, even when left completely to his own devices as he was with last year’s independently produced and absolutely wonderful Logan Lucky, he delights in laying the plotting on thick and using its established and reliable devices to goose the viewers and prod the movie forward. Unsane wields every such trick in the books—foreshadowing, dramatic irony, the unreliable narrator, etc.—to devilish effect.
It would be obtuse to write a review of Unsane and not mention its place in our current cultural conversation. As fun a movie as it often is, it seems to take the #MeToo implications of its protagonist’s situation and background quite seriously. Screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer illustrate, through flashback, how much danger a woman can be in for simply telling the wrong guy, “No,” and how invasive and shattering cyberstalking can be. And yes, if you’ve been keeping count, the screenwriters and director are all male, as am I, so I’m more than open to the possibility that all of the above are actually dead wrong and tone deaf about this. But, for the moment—for this moment—it feels like the kind of story that ought to be told. Especially if it’s going to be told this well.