“Is she or isn’t she?” asks the tagline of Steven Soderbergh’s first horror-thriller, addressing the timeless conundrum of diagnosing one’s own sanity when no more shit could possibly hit the fan. Soderbergh’s affair with retirement was put on hiatus for the production of 2017’s ‘Logan Lucky’ and this uprising — from the directorial afterlife — has facilitated the release of his answer to the B movie genre.
Premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, ‘Unsane’ highlights Claire Foy in her first departure after Netflix’s ‘The Crown’, where her noteworthy display of poise and gumption forms paranoid working girl Sawyer Valentini. Still suffering with psychological trauma after falling victim to stalking, Valentini seeks counselling from a local institution (filmed in the abandoned Summit Park hospital of Pomona, New York) where she becomes involuntarily admitted and harassed once again by her stalker; or so we’re lead to believe.
Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s joint original screenplay with Soderbergh follows Valentini’s unreliable mental stability over a seven day period. This timeline somewhat reflects the ten days it took Soderbergh to shoot his iPhone 7 Plus creation that excels at enhancing themes of intrusion and exploitation. Camera angles are innovative from the outset — shooting from lighting fixtures, underneath desks and bar tops — that allow audiences to experience spying from the antagonists point of view.
The stalker in question is Joshua Leonard’s David Strine — continuing his hair-raising demeanour from TV’s ‘Scorpion’ — who succeeds at making skin crawl as the guy nobody wants to have outside their bedroom window. With no disrespect to Leonard, Strine carries an unhinged expression you wouldn’t hesitate to jab under the circumstances. The central figures play well together in a game of cat and mouse and build a convincing familiarity with each other that validates their exhausting history.
Foy’s Sawyer Valentini — mythical as her name might sound — is an advocate for headstrong women and sheds light on unspoken mental health issues. Her character refuses to play the victim card and Foy frequently ignites the rebel spark and mirrors the insurgence we would all act upon in helpless situations. This hair-pulling daymare has undoubtedly given Foy the platform needed to showcase her talents outside playing royalty, swapping a well-spoken dialect for a few growling f-bombs.
‘Unsane’ initially becomes mislead when one of Soderbergh’s Hollywood pals makes a juggernaut cameo, injecting an odd dose of satire you would only expect from the Coen Brothers. Furthermore, where time was taken to evolve the complexity between hunter and prey, the denouement sadly settles for a clichéd final chase that ultimately weakened its antecedent originality.
If anything else interrupts this lucid dream, it’s the writers — whose highest credit is the 2006 bubble-wrapped rom-com ‘Just My Luck’ — and their inability to honour one train of thought. By no means is the story nonsense or disengaging — as it reimagines the clawing stress-dream we’ve all had — but rather adds too many rational explanations that contradicts the allure of mystery. Trippy double-exposure and bleak cinematography — from Soderbergh’s pseudo name Peter Andrews — aids the first-person experience by displaying the visual effects of pill-popping. However, it is forgotten that audiences are paying to be mind-fucked and will accept and even welcome some corridors to be left in the dark.
For what was initially approached as a student film — going as far as letting Foy apply her own makeup — production company Fingerprint Releasing made an underwhelming $6 million at the box office on its opening weekend, finding it relatively easy to rake back the impressively low budget of $1.2 million. Largely applauded in Claire Foy’s favour for her composure outside Buckingham Palace, ‘Unsane’ exercises Soderbergh’s capabilities of working as a one-man show (director, editor, writer, DoP and camera operator) and offers a compelling cerebral maze to work through, despite leaving neon exit signs towards the end.
Jo’s Rating: 7 out of 10
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, James Greer, Sarah Stiles, Mark Kudisch