Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Producer: Joseph Malloch
Stars: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
Tormented by visions of a stalker from whom she fled, a troubled woman ends up trapped inside a secretive mental hospital.
Exchanging Boston for Pennsylvania put physical distance between Sawyer Valentini and her obsessive stalker David Strine. The mental link intertwining the two remains as intimate as ever. Sawyer still sees David at work, on the street, even over the face of a one-night stand brought home for a fling.
Feeling vulnerable from her growing psychosis, Sawyer consults a mental health counselor at Highland Creek Behavioral Center. The counselor takes notes, nods, and ends their introductory session by asking Sawyer to sign some supposedly cursory paperwork. Having no time to flip through formalities, Sawyer treats the fine print like an iTunes user agreement and jots her John Hancock on the line.
Sawyer soon finds out she just committed herself to 24 hours of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” care. Understandably upset at her situation, Sawyer violently lashes out at an orderly and inadvertently extends her stay to seven days.
Sawyer’s ongoing ordeal progresses from frying pan to fire to full-on inferno when a familiar face shows up in hospital scrubs. Nurses assure Sawyer that the orderly administering her medication is George Shaw. Sawyer insists her stalker David Strine has infiltrated their staff. Naturally no one believes her. Now Sawyer’s cracking sanity is locked in a mind game with the person she fears most, who outwardly appears to be David, but inwardly could be Sawyer herself.
“Unsane” takes a nifty nucleus for a psychological thriller and deliberately makes it decidedly less intriguing by giving it an unnecessary gimmick. Cinema has existed so long as a medium, it demands fresh ideas for exploration. But “Unsane’s” bizarre choice to be filmed entirely on an iPhone makes the experience feel exactly like what it is: an entitled experiment in pedestrian pointlessness.
You know those photographs featuring Spielberg or Scorsese holding a cannon-sized scope of precision-crafted Zeiss glass? No one needs knowledge of camera mechanics to understand that a lens the size of a fingernail cannot produce the same professional-grade result.
Unsurprisingly, “Unsane” looks like any number of cheapo DTV indies since it is shot in essentially the same choppily rushed fashion. Overexposed light blazes through windows that don’t have time for grips and gaffers to properly set screens. Awful camera positions, such as simply sitting on a countertop bar, add an inconsistently applied reality TV veneer. Fish eyes also distort imagery from being placed too close to objects.
“Unsane” doesn’t even compensate correctly for its TV-sized 1:33 aspect ratio. Talking heads appear dead center, surrounded by seas of empty space up above and to each side.
Nothing about the pocket-sized presentation enhances the film’s fiction. In fact, it detracts.
While it would be low on the wish list of movie “what ifs,” I’d be curious to see “Unsane’s” story unfold without the distraction of a 4:3 frame and obtrusive score overcompensating to force quirk into a movie whose plot doesn’t deserve the pretension. Claire Foy and Joshua Leonard, whose physically and psychologically fleshed performances carry everything captivating about the film, create complexities out of simply described character types. The drama they drive strengthens suspense considerably, an achievement made more impressive given how hard the audience has to fight to see through filmic fog.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest that a director refrain from taking artistic risks. I’m just not convinced Steven Soderbergh isn’t approaching guerrilla filmmaking ironically. Picture Anthony Bourdain smirkingly slinging a one-hour special on Dairy Queen hotdogs and you’ll have a similar image of what’s in play here.
“Unsane” gives off an aroma of Soderbergh “taking the piss,” to borrow a Commonwealth colloquialism. Novices make bare bones movies off the cuff out of necessity. When an accomplished auteur such as Soderbergh does it, yet retains the tone deafness to still shove in a Matt Damon cameo, the sense is his collaborators are only taking an amateurish route as a lark to see if they can, without asking whether the screenplay justifies if they should.
It seems sinful to award three stars to a Hollywood production in this case, as though “Unsane” gets away with careless contempt for cinematic conventions by disguising itself as a boldly inventive endeavor. Conflictingly, it would be equally scandalous to deny “Unsane’s” ability to command an audience’s attention during its essential scenes. If Soderbergh had kept that string unbroken instead of padding with meandering moments like a cop conversing metaphorically about coffee, “Unsane” might not be a craftily compelling setup trapped inside a lazily implemented delivery device.
Review Score: 60