By Noel Vera
THE BEST part of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is easily the first half — when unwary businesswoman Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy from The Crown) is suddenly committed to a mental ward for suicidal ideation.
It happens casually — don’t really see it coming ’cept for the way the counselor (Myra Lucretia Taylor) lowers her head and narrows her eyes at a few chance remarks Sawyer makes about harming herself. The rest of the scenario unfolds like a nightmare straight out of Kafka: Sawyer is prevented from leaving, is led to a room (door locked behind her), is asked to undress, is patiently indulged as she demands to call the police, is forced to watch helplessly as police arrive only to be shown a document she herself has unwittingly signed — that she has “voluntarily” committed herself to this institution for a day. A week, since she has just “violently assaulted” a staff member.
The rest of the film follows from that chillingly plausible premise (so plausible I’m unsure I want to unburden myself to any counselor ever again): we see the efficiency with which orderlies and nurses handle her understandable if unproductive escalating frustration; we see the ward itself — hallways painted a combination deadpan cream (To calm agitated clients?) and dark green (To hide scuff marks and smeared bodily fluids?). We see pills in cups and shock electrodes and padded rooms monitored by close-circuit cameras. We see patients suffering various conditions, from near-unobtrusive (the humane Nate Hoffman [Jay Pharoah, terrific] who gives Sawyer a quick tour of the place and lends her his contraband cellphone when no one’s looking) to visibly severe (unsociable Violet [Juno Temple] who threatens Sawyer with a sharpened spoon hidden in her waistband).
Nate gives Sawyer and us the film’s single most memorable moment, quietly presented as if unimportant: that Sawyer is here as the result of a scam where the ward bills her health insurance until the money runs out, whereupon she’ll be declared “sane.” Involuntary commitment to milk your insurance? The idea is so horrifying — yet so unsettlingly possible — it should send audiences shrieking from the theaters (if they know what’s good for them). Such a scheme has not been unheard of, though it involved juvenile placement and not a mental ward (a judge meting out harsher sentences to youths in exchange for kickbacks — the Kids for Cash scandal).
That’s the high point for me — the rest of the picture is basically downhill, though in Soderbergh’s hands not entirely clumsy or unentertaining. Sawyer thinks a new employee named David (Joshua Leonard) is a stalker who has followed her from her home town; Sawyer’s mother Angela (Amy Irving, also terrific) turns up to help her incarcerated daughter. Soderbergh raises the stakes — now it’s an issue of whether or not Sawyer’s really being stalked or it’s all in her doped-up head — though the script (by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer) is unable to take the Is She or Isn’t She? question very far (less than halfway) before dumping it for more unambiguous issues. Worse, the film takes major leaps and somersaults in logic and doesn’t always land on its feet (Skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the film!). How could David have tracked Sawyer down — and around the same time when she’s been committed? Why does Angela open her hotel room door to David without calling the front desk? Why would David allow Sawyer to talk him into leaving her at a crucial moment to look for another girl to rape first? The leaps in logic are hardly left unexplained (David’s just that smart; Angela is just that dumb, David just that persuasive; Sawyer is just that smooth a talker — though she has to count on David to choose Violet with her hidden sharpened spoon) but Soderbergh is such a sober intelligent filmmaker your brain can’t help but work overtime, noting all the unlikely twists. I figure that to have properly pulled this off, Soderbergh should have gone crazier, done a De Palma and doused the screen with style, style, and more style — difficult to do considering he’s shooting on an iPhone 7 Plus.
Oh, did I forget to mention that? The whole movie’s shot on an iPhone. Not the first time it’s been done; Sean Baker shot Tangerine on an iPhone 5 back in 2015. Where Baker adjusted his color for a more garish palette (to complement the equally garish language and clothes of the transgendered sex workers) Soderbergh opts for a darker — some might say murkier — look, to match the uneasily claustrophobic air of the mental ward. Which helps perhaps to demarcate the iPhone’s territory in the realm of cinema: as an inexpensive way of capturing urban grunge, of creating menacing spaces for unholy killers to stalk through.
Unsane is a clever if underdeveloped little thriller, not so impressive till you put it in its place in Soderbergh’s ever-expanding ever-morphing oeuvre: from the epically entertaining Ocean movies, to science fiction efforts like his Solaris remake and Contagion, to biopics like Kafka and Che, to low-budget productions like Logan Lucky and Magic Mike, to more experimental fare like Full Frontal and the narratively uncanny Schizopolis — I’ve only scratched the surface of the guy’s career, and have yet to mention his TV work. He’s prolific and inventive in his own unassuming way, always pushing himself to do something different; case in point, this film. Will his next feature be something interesting? Unquestionably so. Will I be there to catch it? Undoubtedly.