Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a fairly delectable tricenarian career woman—a seven, location-permitting, but otherwise a solid six in Boston. A walking case of amusing ironies, in her brief, new life as a banking analyst in Pennsylvania, she puts clients to the test but is in need of one of her own. Though childless and unspoken for, she doesn’t fit the description of ‘categorically eligible’ to a tee. Mainly because she’s not entirely baggage-free; she’s on the lam from a dedicated stalker all the way from Massachusetts. From that irony Steven Soderbergh teases out ideas about the dating pool, boundaries of consent, mental health awareness and—would you believe it?—victim-blaming and #MeToo, in his shape-shifting experimental offering. But before going any further into my reintroduction to Soderbergh, allow me to wind it back a bit.
Of the plethora of titles spanning multiple decades and vast authorial voices clogging up my watchlist while vying for finite free time and attention reservoirs, few would make their way off the shelf—and, fewer yet, onto this site. The blueprint for tackling the selection dilemma they pose given the hypothetical downtime is there, as both the DVD rack and the watchlist are organized by country, genre, period or director. Steven Soderbergh, while, surprisingly, still to feature on either place, is one name I’ve made a mental note for to tag as an Essential; a director with a patent signature or a thematic or stylistic preoccupation that alleviate the uncertainty of the unknown. More surprisingly is that outside of a few of his movies I saw in passing (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s trilogy), I haven’t watched much (Out of Sight). Upon finding Unsane on Netflix one evening I was at a loss for viewing choice, I immediately jumped on the possibility of the sampling a refined cinematic experience of independent flavor.
And Unsane did not disappoint. It impressed, predictably and resoundingly. Shot almost entirely on an iPhone over a brief production, the project more resembles a filmographic detour into short film territory than an earnest endeavor. That would have exclusively signaled an unabashed love for the craft on Soderbergh’s part had Claire Foy’s interpretation of her character been anything less than on point, and thus elevating the overall credibility of the project. Playing an impulsive young woman (Miss Valentini) on the run from a stalker, there is a comical dissonance between her job as a capable bank analyst and a poor judgment in selecting mates. There is a story—nothing we haven’t already seen before—but it is the surrounding commentary that complements its bare-bones simplicity, like the aforementioned quirk which lands Sawyer in the nearest mad house.
A slip of the tongue during a psych-eval finds her admitted into a mental hospital against her wishes. It’s the very definition of signing one’s life away, and the perils of too much oversharing that sends many a predator’s antenna a-buzzing. Following that, the comedy of errors is compounded by an insurance apparatus designed to confine her as long as the co-pay allows. It turns out not everyone inside is a total cuckoo as that revelation is uncovered by a fellow patient. Paranoid delusions emerge for Sawyer and her argument for wrongful admission ranges from sensible pleas to bursts of hostile disruptions. All comically rendered and augmented by the presence of a cell phone that doubles as both contraband and an emblem of freedom and her sole portal to outside world outside of scheduled visitations. Instead of biding her time, and wearing out her welcome, Sawyer succumbs to perceived slights to her mental state. In her defense, the line between reality and imagination is blurred when she suspects her stalker is posing as a caregiver at the facility.
Darkly humorous and sinister, Unsane wouldn’t be out of place on the Coens’ IMDb page. Though light on the sibling-duo’s signature bite and well-timed theatrics, its vulgarity and scathing takedown of institutional bureaucracies makes it Soderbergh’s very own Burn after Reading. All that soon descends into nihilistic mayhem, with the indiscriminate body count resembling a slasher movie’s, replete with a climax occurring in a dungeon-like basement below the facility. It’s a turn that blows up the established conceit of an entire feature’s length preceding it; the pervasive gaslighting, the police raid of the facility, both fade to the background the way symptoms are meant to by the next prescribed dosage. An A for the impromptu filmmaking exercise and a solid B for a feature that eschewed high production values, depending on intentions.
Sometimes rowdy, sometimes pouty.