IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 98 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Sawyer Valentini moves to a new city and a new job to get away from David Stone her stalker who’s been terrorising her for two years. After having a nervous breakdown during a one-night stand, she seeks a support group for victims of harassment at a nearby hospital and unwittingly signs documents committing herself to spend twenty four hours in the hospital’s psychiatric ward. Once there, her belongings and clothes are confiscated, her stay is extended to a week after hitting an orderly she mistakes for David, and when she calls the police, they are unwilling to intervene. Then she then notices that one of the orderlies actually is David – though nobody believes her.…
I never know what I’m going to get from a Steven Soderbergh film. It could range from excellent to terrible. While there are certainly themes running through some of his work, his output is so diverse in subject matter, and often not even stylistically similar, that I reckon if you watched four of his films back to back [take for example The Limey, Erin Brockovitch, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven which he made from 1999 to 2001], there’s a good chance that you’d never guess that they were the work of the same director. And in a way that makes him quite an exciting filmmaker, even if in my opinion he fails almost as often as he succeeds. It was a shame when in 2013 he announced that he was retiring from film-making, something probably influenced by the difficulty he had in getting Behind The Candelabra financed and distributed – though he’d said that several times before and a few weeks later said he was just having a five year break from making films around his birthday. After some time wasted with pointless re-edits of famous films, 2016 saw the release of the mediocre Logan Lucky which really was one Soderburgh film that was very similar to another, and now we have Unsane, one of those Soderbergh efforts that he seems to make principally because he’s set himself a challenge,
It was only a matter of time before the the sad rise of digital filmmaking and projection [I don’t care what anyone says, I believe that there’s a notable difference between celluloid and digital, and the latter, however good it is now, still lacks some of the qualities of the former] would result in movies being entirely shot on phones, Unsane not being the first, though it’s certainly the first one to get a major cinema release. While phone technology will undoubtedly make it easier for filmmakers to shoot films with little money, is it not a little sad that somebody like Soderbergh has made something that looks almost as ugly [even though he bizarrely claimed that there was no difference] as you’d probably expect it to? On the other hand, he hasn’t given us loads of ‘shakycam’ which is something I dreaded. Instead, apart from a few moments which work in context, the film-making is very steady, the camera [sorry phone] often choosing to just plonk itself down and watch what’s going on, though there are some show-offy shots from odd angles and, sadly, some very unsightly camera pans which look like they were shot with a fish eye lens as they go around corners, but obviously only look this way because they were done on a phone.
So ignoring all that, how does Unsane, which is clearly influenced by Shock Corridor, work as a psychological, horror-tinged thriller? It really feels like two films in one, a very intriguing and unsettling study of a disturbed woman who may or may not be insane [the film’s title was actually previously used for the American re-edit of Tenebrae] which begins to merge with and then become a more conventional psycho-thriller. It opens from the perspective of a stalker, the camera tracking through a forest as we hear in voice-over how the object of his affection made him see the world in a completely new way, though afterwards the stalker aspect is only reintroduced very gradually, the emphasis being on our very troubled heroine who’s supposedly just moved thousands of miles away because of her mother with whom she has a somewhat frosty relationship, though there’s obviously another reason. She meets a guy in a bar through a dating site and offers him casual sex with no ties afterwards, something which she probably does often, though the man’s perfect night is ruined when she mistakes him for her stalker David. This obviously happens a lot so she goes to a support group and ends up mistakenly signing forms which commit her to a psychiatric wars. Now Sawyer may have serious problems but she comes across as an intelligent person, yet – well – I don’t know about you but she then seems to me to be a complete idiot to sign a couple of forms without even looking at them. And I’m no expert on the subject, but I thought that if you voluntarily commit yourself to a mental institute you’re allowed to wear your own clothes, and have the right to a lawyer if you’re taken there against your will. But then it’s best not to think about the plot for this film too much, I mean when Sawyer first sees David at the hospital, all that was going through my mind was how on earth did he know to get a job at the exact same place that Sawyer was going to end up in?
O well, it’s all nicely uneasy for quite a while. When she mistakes an orderly for her stalker and strikes him, Sawyer’s “sentence” is increased to seven days. She meets a threatening patient named Violet, well played by Juno Temple who is actually rather terrifying here, and a supportive one named Nate, who tells her that she’s basically part of an insurance scam in which hospitals like this one admit patients just to get money from their providers. This is a scarily plausible premise and a pointed condemnation of American’s mental health care system which Soderbergh and screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer clearly believe is driven by profit. I’m sure more knowledgeable writers will know if they’re right or not, but it certainly gives the story some weight, as does the fact that Sawyer’s sometimes violent reactions to bad things perpetrated against her do indeed make her look out of control if you miss just a few seconds and don’t believe her claims that she’s seeing the guy who’s been stalking her for two years handing out medication. The answer as to whether it’s really him or not is provided rather too quickly, especially because Soderbergh isn’t too great at suspense, and it makes some lengthy conversations between stalker and victim less interesting then they might have been, the scenes just bogging the film down a bit when it should be ramping up some speed. One should still probably praise the film for at least trying to get into the psychology of stalking. Joshua Leonard does very well at playing both the frightening and the pathetic aspects of a stalker. You are convinced that his character does love the heroine in his own crazy way, does believe in the one-sided connection he has with her.
We do eventually get some of the usual thrills and spilling of blood, though Soderbergh doesn’t seem very interested in such stuff and the way one half of the tale wraps up is rather rushed. There’s an admirably depressing coda though with Sawyer’s otherwise fairly familiar character arc given a surprising finish. The whole tone is quite grim despite certain wry touches like a cameo-ing Matt Damon telling Sawyer “your phone is your worst enemy” in a film shot on a phone, and Amy Irving in very gutsy form as Sawyer’s mother coming up against brick walls as she tries to free her poor daughter, though she’s also a character who soon disappears from the film even though she hints at deeper psychological scars Sawyer may have. There seems to be a subtext about women in general not being listened to [it happens several times and not just to Sawyer], and the very timely subject of how difficult it is in particular for victims of harassment – especially of an emotional rather than physical kind – to be heard, their behaviour often dismissed as general madness or just ignored rather than attributed to real trauma. And, despite my reservations about the look [as usual Soderbergh handles the cinematography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews] and style of the film earlier, there is one really good, trippy scene, rendered through multiple double exposures, where Sawyer reacts to an unprescribed pill slipped in with her dose, and, while David Wilder Savage’s score sometimes resorts to rather out of place sub-techno, there are some extremely effective bits where all we hear is one endless ambient note in the background.
But it’s really rising star Claire Foy who makes Unsane as good as it is. She’s especially good at acting with her eyes, and isn’t afraid to make Sawyer hard to like in places. She’s in nearly every scene, the few moments that leave her almost coming across as mistakes. Without her very committed, intelligent performance, Unsane would probably struggle in places. This bodes well for her Lisbeth Salander in The Girl In The Spider’s Web even though we’ve already had two excellent screen incarnations of that character. Unsane doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of its early scenes and would probably have been better if its uncertainty and paranoia had been played to the end. However, for something made seemingly as a technical experiment and which I feared might be barely watchable at the cinema, it’s still a solid [if flawed] thriller that’s certainly worth a watch in one, and may even leave you thinking a little on the issues it throws up.