A young professional woman (Claire Foy), traumatized by irrational visions of a stalker from thousands of miles away, visits a therapist. She’s done everything she can do to escape his presence, yet she still sees him, suddenly, in the eyes of other men. She confesses to the counselor that she has, in the past, harbored suicidal thoughts.
All of a sudden, after signing some “boilerplate” paperwork, she’s ushered into a locked examination room and told to remove her clothes. Despite her protesting, she complies. Within minutes, she’s admitted into the hospital’s 24-hour inpatient ward, surrounding by shambling crazies right out of 12 Monkeys or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She’s deemed a danger to herself or others — a questionable, possibly fraudulent and yet not wholly implausible, diagnosis. In her institutional bed, a neighboring patient throws a bloody feminine product at her face the way a monkey throws feces. Welcome to the neighborhood.
That’s the compelling but largely unrealized premise of Unsane, a wobbly combination of self-conscious art film and grisly B-picture. It’s one of the more curious entries in Steven Soderbergh’s woolly filmography. Despite a starry cast that includes Amy Irving, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple and a Matt Damon cameo, it shares more DNA with Soderbergh’s micro-budget improvisational doodles, like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, than it does his glossier, sharper thrillers (Contagion, Side Effects).
This is due in large part to the gimmicky cinematography. He (in)famously shot Unsane on an iPhone 7 Plus. This is not inherently a drawback: Sean Baker filmed Tangerine on an iPhone, infusing its streetwise L.A. comedy with immersive grime. But Soderbergh deploys his handheld canvas like a digital evangelist out to prove a point, and Unsane often feels like an empty aesthetic exercise: prima facie proof that a smartphone can shift or deepen focus, that it can pan elegantly on a tripod, that it can track Kubrickian hallways on a dolly. Soderbergh’s formalism is at its most meretricious since his film-school origins. He’s the kid in the sandbox, showing off his new toy.
This adherence to formal purity also means settling, apparently, for ugly natural lighting, which lands harshly on faces, pierces blindly through windows, or swaths key scenes in near darkness. Soderbergh told IndieWire that “Anybody going to see this movie who has no idea of the backstory to the production will have no idea this was shot on the phone. That’s not part of the conceit.” Perhaps, but they’ll just end up wondering why the picture looks so severe, so murky, so cheap.
As for the narrative, it’s of secondary concern. Screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer wrote the sort of tone-shifting, medical thriller-cum-slasher script beloved by urban horror festivals. Soderbergh milks the is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy paradigm for as long as he can, our interest already beginning to wane by the time he plays his cards. Alternating between some genuinely suffocating, nerve-rattling sequences and others that border on tedium, Unsane loses its rhythm, collapsing into genre clichés.
The evolution of Claire Foy’s character is that of a Lifetime movie heroine battling real and imaginary demons on her road to recovery — if said Lifetime movie were directed by Tobe Hooper. Both of these potential audiences, the liberated modern woman and the Fangoria reader, can expect to feel alienated by the end of Unsane. At least they can find common ground by jeering the cinematography.
UNSANE. Director: Steven Soderbergh; Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irving; Distributor: Bleecker Street; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at most area theaters