Director Steven Soderbergh has a long and fascinating catalog of titles that veer between traditional storytelling to far more experimental efforts. For every Out of Sight, Erin Brokovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike and Logan Lucky, viewers will get something grittier with an oddball slant like Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience or Haywire. His latest certainly falls into the latter category. It is seemingly inspired by 70s psychological thrillers, yet appears to have been shot entirely using an iPhone. It’s a strange juxtaposition, and while engaging and intriguing to a certain degree, Unsane doesn’t quite gel into a cohesive whole.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a businesswoman dealing with psychological trauma after encounters with a stalker. After seeing a support group, talking to a doctor and being asked to fill in some paperwork, Valentini finds herself institutionalized and trapped inside a psychiatric ward for a week. While there, she becomes convinced that her follower, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), has placed himself as an orderly in the institution. She tries to make contact with the outside world and make sense of what has happened, but finds the staff less than accommodating. Valentini does find a friend in the form of Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), a patient who believes the staff have a financial motive for their strange actions.
The movie’s biggest plusses are its performances. Foy is superb in the lead, struggling to maintain her sanity after being sedated by medications and treated at the facility like a disturbed individual. The character is already distressed due to previous events, and as panic sets in she looks even more unhinged. It adds an appropriate element of mystery to the proceedings as viewers attempt to process if her increasingly wild claims are fantasy or reality. The film’s themes are apropos as well. Valentini’s concerns and accusations go largely ignored by her caretakers and she’s treated horribly. Also keeping interest is Pharoah as the lead’s only confidant as well as supporting turns from Amy Irving and Matt Damon (who makes a brief but amusing appearance).
Call this reviewer finicky, but the iPhone imagery leaves plenty to be desired. This is a rather ugly-looking movie, shot very quickly and without much in the way of lighting. While the unattractive look may suit the story, the photography itself is still distracting. The filmmaker does attempt some unusual angles (overhead shots, characters looking directly into the camera), but many of the setups noticeably feature the phone simply sitting on a table and pointing at the cast. Image quality is generally soft and since light levels are minimal, a lot of performers are covered in shadow and difficult to see clearly. Even attempts at camera moves look a bit wonky and end up distancing viewers from the strong performances.
As events reach their climax, the story inserts a B-movie horror element that ends up disappointing and playing as silly. Sections of the film that deal with the protagonist’s treatment and the possible motives behind the incarceration are compelling, but when the movie adds a new and very exaggerated element for the climax, it comes across as jarring and doesn’t feel cohesive with rest of the film. Events end up taking on a schlocky vibe, instead of an unsettling one.
Watching this feature reminded me of a 2013 title from the director’s filmography called Side Effects. That movie, which dealt with psychiatry and the effects of an experimental drug prescription, handled its surprising twists and turns with more success and a unified mood. Admittedly, Unsane is trying to do something completely different from that more traditional thriller, but appears hastily put together and may garner little more than a shrug from viewers. It’s an interesting experiment, but one that doesn’t yield optimal results.