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Matt Thrift

Unsane – first look review

Steven Soderbergh’s unconventional iPhone movie is one of his strangest offerings to date.

On promotional duties for his 2017 comeback feature Logan Lucky, director Steven Soderbergh proved slippery when it came to even acknowledging the existence of this new feature, a film shot over 10 days in June of that year. Headlines already abound dubbing Unsane his iPhone movie; the shrinking of high definition capture devices saw it shot and cut in the time it took Spielberg to finish the Washington Post crossword.

More exciting than any news of Unsane’s less-than-conventional technical toolkit is that it is the filmmaker’s first venture into the realm of psychological horror. The film’s trailer sells it as the claustrophobic progeny of Samuel Fuller’s 1963 psych ward bombshell, Shock Corridor, and Roman Polanski’s 1965 classic of female oppression, Repulsion. That’s basically the conceit, even if Unsane can’t bear the weight of comparison.

In the broadest sense, it’s a familiar narrative, and one that ought to serve as an opportunity for stylistic attack. It sees Claire Foy’s depressed office drone accidentally sectioning herself in a sleepy private hospital. This is the result of intense trauma she has suffered at the hands of a stalker. We all know the tune – we’re here for the virtuosic solos, especially with Soderbergh at the helm.

Yet for all the fleetness of foot the lightweight camera affords, very little translates into visual showmanship. Soderbergh has always had a keen eye for off-kilter framing, and Unsane takes a certain wired energy from its skewed perspectives. One killer scene sees reverse-angle bodycams layered up in during one of Sawyer’s freak outs, but it’s a peak that arrives too early.

The film’s problems begin and end with its screenplay, courtesy of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer. Things begin interestingly enough, with seeds sown for an examination of the traumatic effects of male violence and intrusive insinuation. Sawyer receives much unwanted attention: her boss awkwardly hits on her; a male inmate on her inexplicably mixed ward cops a feel; a mental facility receptionist suffers the innuendos of an attendant cop. “Where’s the outrage?” asks Sawyer of her doctor. Well, quite. Pulling at these thematic threads only serves to see them unravel.

Not that it would matter so much if the genre mechanics were on point, but even here Bernstein and Greer come unstuck. The set-up wants us to ask, “Is Sawyer sane? Insane? Unsane?” A mid-film reveal cripplingly settles that question. Fair enough, if we can now move on to the business of escalation. The writing duo’s propensity for what Larry David might call a ‘stop ‘n’ chat’ undermines Soderbergh’s chances of cranking the narrative up a gear. By the time Sawyer mounts her fight back, any ambiguity of character or subtext is well and truly shot, and Soderbergh’s formal ambition duly flounders.

If it’s not all bad news, it’s mostly down to a wholly and convincingly committed Foy. Soderbergh has some fun when a movie star pal turns up in a brief cameo to explain the logistics of stalker protectionism, advising Sawyer to keep off of social media. “Think of your cell phone as your enemy,” gets a laugh, but you can decide for yourself who the joke’s on.

Published 21 Feb 2018

Tags: Claire Foy Steven Soderbergh

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