Leave it to Steven Soderbergh to take on sexual predators in the form of a pulp thriller that he shot on an iPhone like a genius kid with a new toy. Unsane is a B-movie by a 55-year-old director known showing his A-game for genre filmmaking – but he’s still the same renegade who helped kickstart a revolution with 1989’s sex, lies & videotapes, won an Oscar for 2000’s Traffic, hit box-office paydirt with three Ocean’s Eleven romps and then quit movies for four years to do risky TV like The Knick.
His follow-up to last year’s post-comeback caper flick Logan Lucky, this filmed-under-the-radar horror movie stars the superb British actress Claire Foy (The Crown) as a woman trapped in a literal madhouse. But it’s no less radical than his past work. Soderbergh had expressed his admiration for what Sean Baker accomplished shooting with a smartphone in 2015’s Tangerine – “It’s the future,” Soderbergh has said of today’s consumer-tech cinematography. Doubling once again his own director of photography under pseudonym Peter Andrews, (and acting as his own editor, using the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard – the names of his parents, by the way), the auteur is hellbent on exploring the flexibility of the iPhone camera in the most liberating way imaginable. Watch as he snakes through the shock corridors of the plot, ever eager to stretch the possibilities of the medium. Prepare to be wowed.
The script, by James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein (The Spy Next Door), is an outline, nothing more. It’s what Soderbergh and the actors do within the structure of the film – the first psychological horrorshow of the #MeToo era – that keeps you riveted. Foy, adopting a clipped American accent, holds the camera with fierce intensity as Sawyer Valentini (quite the handle), an efficient, tough-talking data analyst. She’s just moved to Pennsvlvania from Boston, where a stalker has made her life a living hell. So when her creepy boss suggests she join him on a business trip, Sawyer’s guard is up. She needs control, preferring an anonymous Tinder one-night stand that plays by her rules. “This is going to go exactly like you want it to go,” she tells the nameless stud, giving strict orders for him to get out after the deed is done. Except it never gets that far, given that she freaks out at even the mere hint of sexual contact.
What to do? FaceTiming with her supportive mom (the excellent Amy Irving) helps, but it’s not enough. So Sawyer seeks counseling at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center, where she is asked if she’s a danger to herself or others. The slightest equivocation gets her committed for 24 hours, a detention extended for a week when her frightened protestations make her seem crazy. Soderbergh creates a palpable tension as Sawyer launches a futile fight against the system. The filmmaker is clearly reacting to recent exposes of psychiatric hospitals that hold patients for as long as it takes for their health insurance to run out.
But there’s a deeper horror than bureaucracy lurking here. Never mind the run-in with Violet (Juno Temple), a tantrum-throwing patient; what makes Sawyer completely lose it is the notion that sweet-talking George (Joshua Leonard), a new male nurse on the ward, is really David Strine – the stalker she fled Boston to escape. No one believes her, though she does get a sympathetic ear from Nate (Jay Pharoah), a fellow patient with his own suspicions about Highland Creek. A fixture on SNL from 2010 to 2016, it’s not shocking that the comedian gives the film a much needed jolt of humor. The surprise is the grit and grace that Pharoah shows as an actor as he helps our heroine unshuffle the deck stacked against her.
Is she or isn’t she crazy? That’s the question that Soderbergh uses to provoke the audience as Sawyer careens into the wild blue of the film’s final third. You should simply know this: Foy’s performance is something you don’t want to miss. Whether spewing f-bombs, kneeing a suspected assailant in the balls, or promising a blowjob to Nate for a few minutes on his secret cell phone, Foy comes on like gangbusters. Fans of her prim, proper regent on The Crown are in for a shock.
Sawyer isn’t just fighting for her sanity, of course; she’s spoiling to be heard in a world of men and complicit women (doctors, lawyers, cops) that see her courage as paranoia. Is time really up for those enablers? As we watch her cross the thin blue line between order and anarchy, Soderbergh hints at the trauma of the mind that lingers for a female warrior even after a predator is physically vanquished. It’s a major issue – and the film sometimes goes off the rails trying to grapple with it. But thanks to the virtuoso talents of Soderbergh and Foy, Unsane will still pin you to your seat.