By: Steve Pulaski
Steven Soderbergh's Unsane is a troubling film for troubling times. In a moment of great domestic unrest for the United States, it adds more logs to a burning fire by further magnifying a smorgasbord of problems that have sprouted from ignoring other problems. In his second film after announcing his initial retirement from directing movies, Soderbergh delivers a bone-chilling exposé on the commodification of mental health. In doing so, he successfully directs one of the first great films in the #MeToo age that shows the vulnerability of women in an era where gaslighting, assault, and manipulation are disgracefully seen as problems emblematic of the victim's shortcomings. This was a perpetually uncomfortable sit for me. I can't imagine someone who has been through something similar enduring this.
We drop in on the life of Sawyer Valentini, played by Claire Foy, a successful business woman still reeling from a fallout with an ex-boyfriend that led to persistent stalking. After having a panic attack during a Tinder hookup, she signs up for a support group predicated on helping people recover from traumatic instances, such as stalking and sexual assault. She soon discovers she's been involuntarily committed into a mental institution, cut off from the outside world, and used as a tool for her insurance company to make a quick-buck off of her non-negotiable week's stay. Initial resistance gets her only higher doses of pills that all look the same, and worse, are administered by her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), who has become a part of the hospital staff under a different name.
Sawyer is helpless, frantically searching for an out while being harassed by an unstable patient (The Dark Knight Rises' Juno Temple) with violent tendencies and given only some surface-level advice from Nate, a soul on the inside who has seen it all (Saturday Night Live's Jay Pharoah). After getting a hold of her mother (Amy Irving) thanks to Nate's smuggled cell-phone, she finds that even her own family member can hardly do anything to help her. Her mother is given the runaround by attorneys and puff statements by the facility's general manager, all while she remains at the mercy of an ignorant hospital staff and the unclear motivations of her ex-boyfriend.
Claire Foy gives one of the year's first truly exceptional, even Oscar worthy performances; one that combines the physical with the emotional. She makes both aspects come to life by keeping the essence of Sawyer's character present, and is exactly the kind of lead Soderbergh loves focusing on; someone who is a victim, but not a passive one. Someone who is also willing to change the outcome of an interaction by saying a few extra words or making a few off-the-cuff motions. Foy also brings a biting urgency to her character, which allows Sawyer's helplessness to be communicated effectively even during times of utter chaos.
She is surrounded by equally talented supporting performances too, the next best probably coming from Joshua Leonard. A veteran actor, Leonard's role is built upon the slowburn unease generated from his expressionless stare. In early scenes, he's unsettling in his directness, as David sticks to handing patients their daily medications. His presence soon becomes greater, and as a result, his actions more visibly sinister, to the point where his existence on-screen alongside Foy's sometimes inspires suffocating suspense. Leonard is at his most captivating when he does less, forced to carry the weight of a fragile male with a depraved obsession by way of conformity, which kills his character as it prohibits him from getting what he wants. Then there's Temple, who has given more great performances in films like Killer Joe, Little Birds, and The Brass Teapot than actors twice her age, and steals almost every scene she's in where she makes her character heard.
Soderbergh shot Unsane on an iPhone 7 Plus, equipped with 4K resolution and an app that costs $14.99. The result is surprisingly clear visuals, even when blown up on a movie-screen, and shots modestly compressed into a tighter widescreen frame. Soderbergh — the film's cinematographer, credited as "Peter Andrews," and editor, credited as "Mary Ann Bernard" — uses the guerrilla style of filming to evoke scenes that are lucid and experimental. There's a sequence when Sawyer is given the incredibly strong opioid fentanyl, which triggers a violent and dizzied response to sensations reflected wonderfully through visual trickery. Plus, there are moments captured in long hallways and claustrophobic quarters that embellish the desired effects of space and confinement, respectively. Although most likely unintentional on his part, Soderbergh's choice to use an iPhone to shoot this film suggests a sensational side to Swayer's suffering. Sometimes it's as if we're watching "stories" on Instagram or Snapchat thanks to the brevity of some sequences, simultaneously downplaying yet accentuating the myriad of events happening to her in a way that reflects the superficial manner in which many of us respond to suffering we don't directly experience.
But what I especially loved about Unsane and what drew me into its heinous and toxic environment of personal despair is the way Soderbergh and writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer bite off quite a lot in their screenplay, yet swallow it whole and leave it for us to digest. Like some of the great films of this decade, A Ghost Story and The Tree of Life to name a few, more impressionistic offerings, Unsane's strengths are unearthed by what you bring to its larger themes amidst a small-scale story. At its core, however, it's a story about how a woman is manipulated, shoved around and controlled by men and corrupt institutions that prioritize the bottom-line over the health and safety of people. This isn't a new idea, but seeing it play out over the course of 100 briskly paced minutes, with sequences that pile on the social commentary and larger relevance, it's a nonstop contemplative work with a host of talent behind it.
There perhaps isn't a bigger Hollywood filmmaker with the appetite for risk-taking and genre-bending as Steven Soderbergh. With lucrative hits in the form of Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and the Ocean's trilogy, he's manifested a safety net for himself that allows him to make a film like Bubble or Unsane with complete confidence in the final product. You have to admire filmmakers like him, Tyler Perry, and even Woody Allen, for regardless of how the mainstream populous will respond to their works, they'll continue to push themselves and further their crafts. Between this and Logan Lucky, Soderbergh makes yet another case for why he's one of the slickest directors working today, nonetheless one with a consistently successful pedigree of subverting a barrage of genres.