“Unsane” brings some old school paranoia into the digital age

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What I’ve always liked about Steven Soderbergh is the fact that he’s willing to push himself into new directions. After making stripped down arthouse dramas, he’s moved into crowd-pleasing Hollywood fare. Then he made a sharp right turn into prestige filmmaking, then made a sharp left turn into experimental pieces, and now he’s basically swerving all over the place with no clear sense of where he’ll end up next. It’s honestly a very enjoyable career to witness. It doesn’t always succeed, but that’s kind of the fun of it. Soderbergh has made his fair share of failures, but they’re always admirable ones. “Unsane” marks a new venture for Soderbergh in terms of execution. Taking a page from “Tangerine,” he’s filmed the whole movie on an iPhone. This aspect is one of the most fascinating aspects in “Unsane,” but the film doesn’t rely on its gimmick. Instead, it simply uses its unique format to supplement an engaging thriller brimming with tension and paranoia.

The film follows Sawyer Saldini (excellent name, by the way) as she enters a support program after being on the receiving end of a stalker’s uncomfortable advances. What initially seems like an innocuous visit turns into something deeply twisted after she finds that she is unable to escape the place through the sheer power of bureaucracy. This precedes a deep dive into an institutional hell pit, where morals are elusive and ethics are optional.

The iPhone photography of the film is extremely evident. Any preconceptions that Soderbergh may have had about the cinematography being indistinguishable from that of other films would be misconceived. Nobody is going to mistake this for a 70mm projected IMAX film. In fact, nobody is even going to mistake this for digital video projection. No, this is iPhone photography through and through. But honestly, this works in its favor. “Unsane” takes advantage of the unique trademarks we intrinsically associate with iPhones. He combines the extreme close-ups that harken back to selfies and home videos with voyeuristic long shots that could’ve been taken straight from a stalker’s video library. It creates this grimy, unsettling tone that feels at times intensely subjective, and at other times creepily objective. To say that “Unsane” is a beautiful looking movie would be a misnomer – it thrives on its ugliness.

Soderbergh’s tightly written script amps the paranoia up to 11, borrowing from films like “Shock Corridor” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (plus a whole slew of other 70’s thrillers) to create a sense of anxiety that teeters just over the edge without necessarily plunging into flat-out ludicrousness for much of the runtime. In fact, it’s admirable how patiently the dense plot is slowly unspooled. Soderbergh is able to hook us through our confusion and disorientation, then, with each new piece of information, he slowly reorients us, allowing for us to only have a clear idea of what’s happening by the last third.

Another element of the film that really helps it is many of the lead performances. Claire Foy throws herself at the role with reckless abandon, fully embracing some of the more ridiculous scenes that a less-than-committed actress would have sunk. Jay Pharoah and Juno Temple do some good work here too, the former bringing a natural charisma that stands out as a refresher to all the craziness, the latter going completely unhinged as one of the film’s more unpredictable characters. However, amongst the cast, it’s Joshua Leonard who’s the weak link. His performance feels way too mannered, lacking any real depth to make it feel meaningful. He seems to be trying way too hard to convey an emotion, as opposed to simply embodying it. It’s a shame because it’s such a pivotal role in the story and he’s never quite able to make his character feel believable.

The film starts to stumble at the home stretch. It uses a lot of thriller cliches, including a “final girl” chase scene in the woods and a jarringly high body count. Logic seems to be stretched really thin here too, with a lot of plot contrivances in place in order to keep the story moving. The earlier parts of the film had their unbelievable moments, but they were held together by the viewer’s disorientation. Now that we understand what’s happening, it’s not quite as interesting. Still, that shouldn’t take too much away from “Unsane”. While the film isn’t as surprising as it should be, it’s still a very tense, masterfully directed suspense film. Soderbergh is still pushing the boundaries in regards to the technical aspects of filmmaking. Now I’m interested in seeing him push himself as an artist.

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