All film lovers should be grateful that Steven Soderbergh’s self-imposed retirement was a short-lived one. The maverick director returned to the silver screen last year with the wildly fun and cool Logan Lucky. Not one to take a lot of time between projects, Soderbergh shifted gears and released his follow up earlier this year with Unsane. Much of the conversation surrounding Unsane focused on the fact that Soderbergh and his team of collaborators shot film using iPhone technology. What gets lost in focusing just how Unsane was captured is what it pulls off, as this is a smart psychological thriller with themes exploring the American health care system, how it underserves mental health patients, and also the lingering pain caused by stalking and sexual violence.
The Crown’s Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a young woman who is still struggling to move on with her life after being the victim of a stalker. She has a new job but still has to look over her shoulder at lunch to be sure that her stalker hasn’t found her. The young woman takes a trip to a local hospital in the hopes of getting some counseling for the lingering unease caused by being a stalking victim. That’s where things take an odd turn for Sawyer. She’s ushered into another room, and it’s there that she learns that she’s been designated as a threat to herself and other. She’s now an involuntary mental patient. Things take even a darker turn when one of the nurses (Joshua Leonard) turns out to be her stalker. Is it real? Is Sawyer insane? Or is she wrapped up in a diabolical game of cat and mouse enabled by a corrupt system?
Revisiting Unsane for the first time since theaters for its Blu-ray release, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how little the film leans on its big twist. On the initial viewing, Soderbergh and screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer toy with the audience with the lingering question – Is she or isn’t she? Knowing the twist now, it’s still an intense experience that is amplified by Soderbergh’s tight framing and the imperfect aspects of the iPhone cinematography. What would be a negative for most movies becomes an asset, as the iPhone cinematography adds to the overwhelming sense of unease that permeates most of Unsane.
Soderbergh has assembled an impressive supporting cast that helps the psychological horror feel real despite its low-fi aesthetic. The great Amy Irving, best known from Brian De Palma’s Carrie, appears as Sawyer’s mother, a comforting voice presented with the nigh-impossible task of proving her daughter’s sanity. In the asylum, SNL alum Jay Pharoah is the one seemingly sane and sympathetic ear. Then there’s the wild card of Juno Temple’s Violet, prone to violent and profane outbursts often aimed at Sawyer.
Unsane is a masterful director taking a detour into genre cinema, employing an array of tools to make a captivating psychological thriller but tapping into themes that give it an extra edge. Steven Soderbergh is a master and it’s simply great that he’s returned to the silver screen. It’s a rare cinematic talent that could go from the cool, hangout movie of Logan Lucky into the terrifying depths of the psyche with Unsane. Like with so many greats, we look in awe at their latest as we wonder what’ll come next.