Combustible Celluloid
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With: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving, Polly McKie, Sarah Stiles, Colin Woodell, Matt Damon
Written by: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references
Running Time: 97
Date: 03/23/2018

Unsane (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Crazy for You

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Steven Soderbergh isn't exactly an experimental filmmaker in that he does not make "experimental" films, but he does experiment with filmmaking itself. He has made low-budget films and big Hollywood smash hits. He has made "art" films and Oscar-bait films (which worked; he has an Oscar for Best Directing). He tried "retiring" for a while and made a great TV show (The Knick), and then un-retired himself. He definitely does something right. Actors love him, and keep coming back to work with him again.

One of his best films is Bubble (2005), a weird, ultra-low budget, crime-oriented film. The experiment there had to do with releasing the title in theaters and on DVD at the same time, just to see how consumers would respond. My other two favorite Soderbergh films are still Out of Sight (1998) — an exuberant, all-star adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel — and The Limey (1999), a very English, slightly off-kilter hitman story filled with odd, time-leaping editing choices.

His new one, Unsane, fits in nicely with that group. A kind of paranoid psychological horror movie, it was reportedly shot somewhere in the neighborhood of a million bucks — about the same budget as his remarkable debut feature sex, lies & videotape (1989), without even adjusting for inflation — using only an iPhone camera.

The effect of this is immediate. The opening shots are cold and hard-looking, as Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) sits in a cubicle and defends her work as a financial analyst to an irate customer on the phone. This is not to complain about the quality of iPhone cameras; it's more a compliment to Soderbergh's cinematography. He likely chose a quality of light or a certain kind of filter (or an app that does filters) to help capture this effect.

In any case, Sawyer is also cold and hard, and she has reason to be. She claims to have been harassed by a stalker, and one so persistent that she has moved to a different city to get away from him. She avoids personal contact with anyone and frequently changes her schedule around to be more unpredictable. She goes to see a therapist, just to talk, and the therapist asks if Sawyer has ever considered suicide. She has. Of course she has.

Unfortunately, this leads to a surprise; she has been committed for "study" for 24 hours. When she fights back, actually punching another patient and a doctor, this study is extended to a full 7 days. She gets on the bad side of a volatile patient named Violet (Juno Temple) and continually tries to convince anyone who will listen that she's fine and does not need to be there. In a nod to Samuel Fuller's masterpiece Shock Corridor — and its possible predecessor, Budd Boetticher's Behind Locked Doors — a reporter, Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), is undercover as a recovering drug user, attempting to expose insurance scams, like the one that may have been pulled on Sawyer.

Then, waiting in line for her daily meds, she goes hysterical, claiming that the doctor handing out the pills is actually her stalker, whose name is David Strine (Joshua Leonard). A potentially great movie could have been made with this story if the uncertainty and paranoia here had been played out until the end, or almost to the end, but Soderbergh and screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer give up the answer all too easily, and a bit too early.

Nonetheless, the movie's scrappy, unpretentious, "B" movie style still carries it through; there's still a genuine threat and genuine concern. One sequence, in which Sawyer is given a high dose of a certain drug, consists of weird double exposures and a nerve-jangling soundtrack; it's truly unsettling.

Claire Foy is a large part of the movie's success; she has enormous, lovely eyes, and she uses them not only to convey her terror, but also to manipulate people, as shown in that opening scene as well as elsewhere. It's a wonderful performance that recalls nothing less than Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. She's in almost every scene, and the one time the camera leaves her for some plot information, it feels like a mistake.

There is maybe one other mistake, or rather a small gripe, but I can't discuss it without spoilers, so I won't. Nevertheless, Unsane is so skilled and so confident in its look and its performances and its story, and so much twisted, wicked fun, that I can't fault it too much. I'm not 100% sure where the title comes from, but it was also used at one time for the American release of Dario Argento's great Tenebre (1982), and this feels OK. In other words, Soderbergh's film is in fine company.

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