‘Unsane’ has an old dog learning new tricks, to middling effect

Unsane
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Unsane signifies an interesting progression in director Steven Soderbergh’s career. The man strikes me as the kind of filmmaker that hones in on doing something really well and then moves on to the next challenge. Take Logan Lucky for example: It was proof that Soderbergh wasn’t completely done with making crowd pleasing ensemble features. Although the comparisons to the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy are a bit glaring, he was able to shake things up and make everything seem so casual. And not to a fault, either. Unsane is him taking on a whole medium of shot-on-iPhone films while still, as always, playing with the constraints and possibilities of genre. It’s another one of those thrillers that has something intellectual lurking right underneath all of the shrill apprehension. Although the finished product is not without its faults, Soderbergh’s newest is the kind of thriller that will have you thinking more about its subject matter than its visual gambit after you leave the theater.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) finally has made the break from her life in Boston, a place where her stalker took over her mental and physical lives. When she went to therapist for help, she ends up getting committed to a mental institution because she supposedly poses as a danger to herself. Is she crazy? Or is everyone else around her conspiring? Or is it some kind of insurance scam the hospital is pulling to get the most bang for their buck? Also, her stalker is an orderly at the mental institution.

What struck me first about Unsane was how incredibly engaging Claire Foy is. Soderbergh chose the perfect actress to portray a woman stricken with neuroses without belittling them. Side not: I haven’t seen an episode of The Crown, I am sorry. Not only her casting, but her performance is incredibly mature for something that indulges in genre pleasures. The framework for the “is she crazy or isn’t she” thriller is there, but the smart writing and direction pushes the film way beyond the genre limitations. When Sawyer triumphs, it’s not seen as triumphant. It just is. And Foy is more than adept at showcasing internal torture without begging for sympathy. In Unsane, everyone’s a bit (or a lot) broken.

The big thing I’ve been grappling with is how the iPhone aesthetic is used to portray the central character’s trauma. On one hand, Soderbergh has clearly been watching other films shot with an iPhone and has come to the conclusion that there’s garish ugliness that can be mined from something so modern and ingrained in our daily lives. Yet, there’s to beauty to be found in that showiness. The David Lynch comparisons with what Soderbergh is doing here aren’t unearned, but they kind of detract from just how dire the latter director’s view of human interaction actually is here. Unsane can be construed as something taking place in almost quasi-purgatory, a place where no one can be trusted lest it be your downfall.

Even when Unsane errs to side of genre, it does so with a subtle sociopolitical wit. The audience I saw the film with decided it was a laugh riot. To me though, I found this story of a woman’s lack of energy and power in these proceedings profoundly upsetting. Don’t go as far to say that this is Soderbergh’s effort to comment on many of today’s social sicknesses, but definitely give the creative group at work here credit for presenting one of those sicknesses without being preachy. As gross and demoralizing as Unsane gets, it’s never too far-fetched from reality.

Then again, do I think the aesthetic from an iPhone was necessary for such a project? No, and I’d almost rather Soderbergh pick up one of his cameras from The Knick and reshoot the whole thing. Very frequently I kept engaging with what was lying just under the surface than certain images Unsane employs. Again, the genre influences duking it out with something much headier gave me a bit of performative whiplash. What I do know is that Soderbergh remains one of the rare few with the resources to do something this experimental to him, and if I’m to measure merit on trying new things, then I’d like five more of these please.