Marketing materials for Steven Soderbergh’s “Unsane” stress that the newly un-retired filmmaker saw this nervy, iPhone-shot thriller as such a departure that he looked into releasing this film under a pseudonym. That in and of itself is hardly surprising for the film-craft polymath; he’s worked as a cinematographer and editor under the pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard (which, fun fact, are the names of the director’s parents) for years. It’s more surprising that he would make such hoopla for this film. “Unsane” brims with curiosity about digital technology, discomfort with corporate bureaucracies, and is spiked through and through with icy wit – in short, it could never be anything but a Soderbergh film, and a particularly delicious one at that.
But success has many fathers, as the saying goes, and with its limited setting, punchy cast, and definite horror bite, the film is also very much torn from the Blumhouse playbook. More than that, by taking a clear and caustic stand on current social issues and doing so through a genre lens, the film shares broad similarities with “Get Out” — though it’s nowhere near as sharp, and nowhere near as successfully accomplished, as that improbable Oscar contender.
Claire Foy (assuming a shaky American accent and sounding uncannily like Katharine Hepburn) plays Sawyer, a recent Boston expat adjusting to a lonely new life somewhere in Pennsylvania. In between fending off her boss’ boorish advances at her nondescript corporate gig, hers is a life of Tinder dates and FaceTime chats with family back home. In tracing the contours of Sawyer’s self-imposed exile, Soderbergh makes great use of the images his pocket camera delivers. The poor girl’s personal life is entirely on an LCD screen; why shouldn’t the film look the same?
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Soon enough, we understand why she’s sent herself into LCD exile. Turns out, she’s fleeing a particularly nightmarish stalker, and when she starts to see him pop up in the corner of her eye — impossible! There’s a restraining order and everything! — she heads to the nearest mental health clinic for some emergency counseling. There, as is wont to happen in this kind of film, things turn to shit.
Forms are signed, boxes checked, and the next thing you know, she’s in 24-hour voluntary confinement, which turns to seven days when she gets into a scuffle with frightening patient Violet (Juno Temple, riffing on any number of “Orange is the New Black” characters). There’s no escape, and to make matters worse, her stalker (Joshua Leonard, of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Humpday”) has gotten a job as orderly.
Or, you know, has he? With its wicked game of perspective, “Unsane” constantly makes us question if what we’re seeing is “real,” forcing us to replay earlier interactions in our heads and judge subsequent actions accordingly, at least for its first hour. Soderbergh and collaborators walk a razor-thin tightrope and do so with Olympian grace. Is Sawyer a victim of a baroquely orchestrated gaslighting campaign, or she in the throes of a mental breakdown? The film opens itself up for both readings before tipping its hand, and in that Schrodinger’s Cat unknowing, it really soars.
Throughout that first hour, the film hits some delirious satirical highs. “Saturday Night Live” alum Jay Pharoah plays a pivotal role as fellow patient Nate, whose smuggled-in cell phone allows Sawyer to alert her mother (Amy Irving) about her detention, and who gets the film’s standout scene where he describes in fervid, paranoiac detail the wide-ranging corporate plot to keep Sawyer a prisoner. His is the stuff of schizophrenic delirium, delivered with a jumpy edge that reinforces how batshit crazy the whole story is. At the same time, this is America 2018, the film reminds us — everything is batshit crazy.
“Unsane” falls victim to its own success in this respect. Around halfway through, the film stops teasing these questions and starts answering them, and loses steam once it segues into more conventional genre territory, though Soderbergh tries to offset the loss by ramping up the extremity, really leaning in to each lurid new twist to keep the film a perversely pleasurable ride.
He succeeds, as far as that goes. The film’s progressively more preposterous second half, which alternates between flashbacks, surprise cameos, and violent turns certainly shows that he knows his way around a midnight movie. Perhaps that was the kind of departure he had in mind with his furtive plan to sign the film with a different name. But as with his failed retirement, he came up against one fundamental truth: you can’t stop Soderbergh from making Soderbergh movies. For that, we are all the luckier.
“Unsane” premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It opens theatrically on March 23, 2018.