Unsane is a dumb title for a dumb movie. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Steven Soderbergh’s latest experiment warmly embraces its B-movie stupidity more often than not. Released within a year of both Mosaic, his multimedia murder mystery that doubled as an HBO miniseries, and his NASCAR heist film Logan Lucky, this film proves both fresh and familiar for the filmmaker.
Entirely shot on an iPhone 7 Plus, Unsane looks like most of Soderbergh’s experiments; intriguing angles, a focus on the actors at any given moment, and anonymous cityscapes and hallways that feel lifted from anywhere in the US. More than that, he again uses a conventional genre—a thriller whose protagonist may or may not be mentally ill—to explore the monstrosity that is capitalism.When Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is admitted to a psychiatric hospital against her will, she realizes two things: that the man who used to stalk her (Joshua Leonard) and drove her to move away from her hometown is working there to be closer to her, and that she’s being exploited and gaslit by the hospital for insurance money.
Unsane reveals these things quickly, avoiding being all about questioning a woman’s sanity, but still ends up dragging through a second half that feels too familiar and mundane in its plotting. Soderbergh’s bold statement against the American health care system gets lost underneath a lot of haphazard murders and one too many moments of a mentally ill woman (who is, as usual for asylum pictures, the most sane individual in the room) being strapped down and medicated without consent. To her credit, Foy makes the most of a role that asks for repetition, not allowing her to show much range outside of yelling and seeming unstable.
To top it off, the awkward, flashback-heavy script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer doesn’t give her character much personality outside of anger-fueled determination and an isolated lifestyle due to past trauma. She’s a character entirely defined by her past, further emphasizing the anonymity with which Soderbergh approaches the material, arguably creating universality by way of a blank slate. Her interactions with the supporting cast don’t do much to flesh her or them out, all of them playing sacrifices to the plot.
Juno Temple and Amy Irving’s skills are wasted, playing a stereotypical crazy lady and overprotective mother respectively, though Jay Pharoah comes out on top playing the charming foil to Leonard’s monstrous stalker. Though many will complain about the lo-fi look of things, the aesthetic the iPhone provides falls somewhere between appropriately antiseptic and subtly grimy. It’s all about the lighting here, and there’s a lot to appreciate about how Soderbergh moves the camera through spaces both open and claustrophobic.
If any scene remains an absolute highlight, it’s one that takes place in a small padded room where Sawyer and her stalker have an intense dialogue-heavy confrontation. The director, who unsurprisingly doubles as editor and cinematographer, moves through the space, circling the actors as they yell and react, even placing the camera in a corner as to mimic a security camera, expanding a small room into a stage of sorts. It’s one of a few moments that exemplifies why Soderbergh’s films are always interesting to watch even when they’re not as great as they could and should be.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer; starring Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Juno Temple, Jay Pharoah, and Amy Irving; 98 minutes.
Unsane is now playing in theaters everywhere.