Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
Runtime: 98 Minutes
The second film of director Steven Soderbergh’s ongoing post-retirement career, Unsane channels so much of the spirit – and overcast shadow – of 60s and 70s exploitation cinema, from its premise of a young woman, Sawyer (Claire Foy), seemingly imprisoned against her will in a mental institution, to its microbudget and financing outside of the major Hollywood production system.
Filmed entirely on the iPhone 7 Plus (as it was the most affordable and efficient piece of equipment available), it’s a growing validation of the need to keep pushing the boundaries of what we deem to be cinema or even cinematic. Soderbergh’s cinematography grants the film a voyeuristic, hyperrealist aesthetic of low-angles, fixed frames and the ability to place the camera pretty much anywhere in the scene. From a surveillance gods-eye in the corner of a room or a POV shot, to the slow-moving tracking of moving individuals.
It’s a messy format that’s all grain and wide angles, but it places you in a very specific mindset of discomfort. Made more convincing by the environments, dingy colour pallet and speed at which the film was made giving a sense of immediacy to much of what’s going on. In one particular scene, Soderbergh straps cameras at the front and pack of Foy’s torso and superimposes the image to disorienting effect as she trashes a room violently under the influence of wrongfully prescribed medication. It’s kind of amazing that it's been shown in multiplexes given how cheap it all looks.
Foy is absolutely terrific in the role, ragged and natural in a role that offers a depiction of a modern woman that isn’t often seen in Hollywood cinema, at least not like this. She treads a line very carefully as to the nature of her supposed insanity as though she’s playing it one way while the film suggests other avenues.
But it also brings into the fold the question of insanity as a term and how it is applied to individuals in a state of crisis. This is kind of where the film falters as it appears to be attempting to spin too many plates at once, the cost being the sacrifice of characterisation or screen time for many of the supporting performers.
At once an indictment of a system that exploits the vulnerable for monetary gain through the exploitation of their insurance coverage, the distortion of information through Kafkaesque techniques sedating one to a state of compliance, and also how much one can assume another to be of sound mind or otherwise when there are very prevalent exterior factors at play.
This latter point is the film’s strongest statement of purpose, that being the dangers of gaslighting and the vulnerability of individuals to those who will exploit a weakness for their own perverse gain. The whole time Sawyer is held imprisoned – speciously of her own accord – she believes she is seeing the face of the man who has been stalking her for years on end. Forcing her to move cities and jobs to avoid his presence. In one of the film’s stronger scenes (although marred by a distracting Matt Damon cameo), she is run through the limitations of what a life must be like in the modern world for the victim of stalking in regimental paces, meaning she can never let her guard down again.
How the film chooses to handle this more literally is another issue entirely, and where the film’s concepts get uncomfortably muddied. If Sawyer is going mad, then it does inform the idea that the lingering mental damage of gaslighting and stalking is something that can tip an ordinary person’s life into a horror story, and the social relevance feels close to Get Out in terms of what it’s trying to say.
On the other hand, this is riffing on a very particular kind of genre where elements become very literal and more obviously pointed, and as with many of Soderbergh’s other projects it tips over into sillier territory entirely come the third act in a way that feels at odds with what its been presented before. Although not written by Soderbergh (although, who can really believe that anymore), it still carries his hallmarks, and unlike his considerably cleverer Side Effects, its portrayal of patients of the hospital feels distinctly exploitative and uncomfortable when regarding the fate of Juno Temple’s character specifically.
The denouement of Unsane speaks volumes regarding the intent and impression it wishes to leave, but the journey there – while thrilling – is mostly held together by a unique aesthetic and an unpredictably brilliant performance from Claire Foy.