About five years ago, Steven Soderbergh made the surprising announcement that he was done directing feature films. Now, this guy had been an absolute lion in the business, on movies both large and small. A career that began with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” also included “Out of Sight,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Ocean’s Eleven” (and Twelve and Thirteen), “Magic Mike,” “The Girlfriend Experience,” and many more. But he’d had enough of that, he said, and it was time to concentrate on producing and directing for television.
Who knows why he made those decisions or why, last year, he threw them to the wind, and directed the theatrical feature “Logan Lucky,” which was on my Top 20 list. Now, with his second film since “quitting,” Soderbergh has proven that he’s capable, with only two films, of being all over the map. “Logan Lucky” was a goofy heist comedy; “Unsane” is an edgy, low-key horror thriller. He’s already in post-production on a baseball movie called “High Flying Bird.” Welcome back, Mr. Soderbergh.
“Unsane” is one of his smaller films, with a budget so miniscule — reportedly just over a $1 million — the whole thing was shot on an iPhone. Or maybe that was an esthetic choice. Whatever his reason for making it that way, it’s the only part of the film that I found bothersome. That approach worked a few years back on Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” but its success was due to its kinetic energy. In “Unsane,” the process makes watching the film a harsh, uncomfortable experience, and its often-slow pace, coupled with a tendency to have long periods of silence, forces viewers to concentrate on the less-than-pleasing visuals.
But despite all of that, the film has many things going for it: An intriguing story in which whatever is going to happen next is impossible to guess; some brave acting by people playing characters who are refreshing to see and unnerving to comprehend; and a cool cameo, which you are now aware of but will not be revealed here.
Claire Foy, who played Queen Elizabeth II on the first two seasons of “The Crown,” is Sawyer Valentini, a young woman who has been rattled by a stalker and has moved far away from home to start life anew. But feeling lost and lonely, she seeks help from a therapist who decides, after one visit, that Sawyer needs a lot more help than she can provide her. Tricking her into signing some papers, the therapist gets Sawyer “voluntarily committed for 24 hours.”
“There’s been some kind of mistake; I just wanted someone to talk to,” she says, at first softly, then by way of something closer to a scream. And before she knows what hit her — but after she hits someone else because, well, she has violent tendencies — she’s placed in a mixed male-female ward, given some meds, and told to be quiet and go to sleep.
So, is she OK? Is she not OK? What about the fact that she left town to escape that stalker, but is now telling various doctors and attendants at this facility that one of the male nurses (Joshua Leonard) IS that stalker? Will her mother (Amy Irving) be able to get her out of this pickle? Will the nasty Nurse Boles (Polly McKie) be her undoing? Is the one patient (Jay Pharoah) who’s being nice to her doing so with an ulterior motive. These are the sorts of things going on in her head, and we still don’t know: Is she OK? Is she not OK?
Soderbergh and his writers present a jittery atmosphere, then throw in thoughts of dread, then make it all horrific. It’s an absorbing, mesmerizing film that relentlessly draws you in. And based on the audience I saw it with, it’s a crowd pleaser. But it will definitely help if the crowds are slightly deranged.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer; directed by Steven Soderbergh
With Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Amy Irving