Steven Soderbergh petitioned the Directors Guild of America to let him make his new low-budget, high-concept stalker thriller Unsane under a pseudonym, and I can imagine why. The pulpy thriller is shot on an iPhone, but not in the way Sean Baker’s bright and funny Tangerine was, where the director did everything he could to minimize that fisheye iPhone look. Instead, Soderbergh embraces the technology and its limitations, giving us flat compositions and the sense that his camera is surveilling the characters rather than carefully photographing them.
That’s thematically appropriate. The film tells the story of a terrorized woman in a mental hospital who’s trying to convince the staff and patients that she shouldn’t be there and is being held against her will. Her phone has been taken from her, and the movie has the look of having been smuggled out itself. Simple and well-acted, Unsane has tension enough to knot the stomach. But it’s wildly different from Soderbergh’s previous film, the star-studded and critically acclaimed country caper Logan Lucky, which was set in a cartoonishly jubilant reality. Unsane comes closer to the spirit of his first feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape, not in subject matter or genre but in experimentation of form. And it’s totally possible that critics and audiences wouldn’t know what to think about that — shouldn’t a director be expanding on his oeuvre, not going backward?
In Sex, Soderbergh experimented with video and the distance that medium created between audience and character. Here, he’s eliminating distance almost completely, as Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) appears on the screen like any of your Facetime contacts might. And while the director obsessively employed tracking shots in Sex, he’s patient with static shots in Unsane, allowing the blocking of his actors’ movements to create dynamism. It’s not necessarily with the kind of careful choreography of a Steven Spielberg take, but with a kinetic energy that had me questioning how and where the characters would go next, as I might in a tense stage play.
We first see Sawyer in a cookie-cutter cubicle office, backtalking to a banking client for being stupid. She doesn’t roll her eyes at her coworkers; she drills through them with a stare. Just a few minutes in, Soderbergh sets up Sawyer as an unreliable narrator, as she eats her lunch alone outside, telling her mom Angela (Amy Irving) that she’s made tons of friends in this new town, and absolutely loves her job. Not a bit of this is true. Sawyer takes a guy home from a bar but then has a sudden, visceral, violent reaction to him being in her apartment; concerned, she looks up therapy clinics and sets off on her lunch hour the next day for her first session. Unbeknownst to Sawyer, a 24-hour commitment form has been included in all the boilerplate paperwork she signs, and she soon gets carted off to spend the night in a ward with a group of other patients, some of whom seem perfectly well-adjusted, like Nate (Jay Pharoah). Sawyer can get through a bumpy 24 hours inside, but then she believes that she sees, working as an orderly, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard), who’d driven her from multiple homes and jobs. She loses it, and the hospital has reason to keep her in the tank for another seven days. Or until her insurance runs out.
The tagline for this film — “Is she or isn’t she?” — refers to whether Sawyer is imagining her stalker, but the script, penned by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, isn’t clever enough to keep us really guessing. That guessing game is well-trodden fare anyway, and Unsane’s strengths lie in the how, not the what. When Angela comes to rescue Sawyer from the hospital’s clutches, for instance, I sat forward in my seat, wondering how the writers would manipulate Angela into returning home empty-handed without her daughter. What I got was a seemingly pragmatic, and convincingly frustrating, interaction between Angela and the hospital administrator, with the admin employing the kinds of terrifying language anyone, including Angela, fears and wants to run from: “litigation,” “reputation.” The story may seem outlandish, Bernstein and Greer ground it in real life, so the horror is both bureaucratic (from the hospital) and psychopathic (from the stalker).
The best thing I can say about Unsane is that I wanted to get away from it, just pack up my notepad and walk out of the screening room, because it made me that uncomfortable. Like Sawyer, I felt trapped, which last happened to me at the movies during Karyn Kusama’s cult horror film The Invitation. Perhaps more scary genre films should swing their pendulums back toward the hyper-real and away from the stylized escapism of something like The Conjuring franchise?
Costume designer Susan Lyall dresses Foy and the other actors in believably style-less mall clothing. And if Lisa Forst weren’t listed as makeup department head and JT Franchuk as hair department head, it would seem entirely plausible that each actor simply did their own, using drugstore products — though Juno Temple definitely went elsewhere to get her long, blonde cornrows for Violet, an aggressive, shiv-carrying patient. All of this is a compliment to the crew members, who are tasked with the job of recreating reality, not beauty.
With both Unsane and his choose-your-own-adventure series Mosaic on HBO and online, it’s exciting to watch what Soderbergh does next, even if the stories aren’t as groundbreaking as their forms.