Steven Soderbergh has always been distinctly hit or miss for me — for every Out of Sight there’s a spate of Ocean’s movies to contend with — but as problematic as his films can be, there can be no doubt that he’s never been afraid to take risks. Soderbergh’s latest is a massive affront to conventional wisdom, a down-and-dirty piece of tabloid cinema that surprisingly works more often than it doesn’t. Unsane is effectively Shock Corridor shot on a shoestring budget with an iPhone camera, and while I love low-budget horror films, I never would have pegged a style-over-substance filmmaker like Soderbergh as someone who could pull off anything even slightly Sam Fuller-adjacent. Consider me pleasantly surprised.
Don’t get me wrong, Unsane is an ugly little movie, both aesthetically and thematically. But it’s supposed to be — it’s a throwback to the grimy days of ’70s grindhouse cinema, as well as the morally turbid world of ’40s and ’50s film noir. It’s a psychological thriller with the emphasis on the psychological, and Soderbergh manages it with a deft touch in spite of the gimmick-driven nature of his cellphone cinematography. While I was prepared to hate the amateurish nature that such a conceit implies — and the film unquestionably looks like a grad student’s thesis short — I was shocked at how quickly my mind acclimated to the lo-fi look and became engrossed in the narrative.
The story follows a young woman, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), adapting to a new job and a new town while struggling with an unspecified mental illness that seems to be rooted in her interactions with men. We learn quickly that her difficulties and her abrupt relocation stem from an incident with a stalker that has left her plagued by symptoms resembling PTSD, most notably paranoid delusions. We discover this fact after Sawyer is involuntarily committed to a psych ward as part of an insurance scam, and things only get worse from there as she comes to believe that one of the nurses administering her meds (Joshua Leonard) is, in fact, her stalker. Is it really him, or is she really nuts? Soderbergh plays it down the middle for a while, but he makes the rules of the game obvious in short order.
If Soderbergh’s script, penned by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, isn’t particularly interested in carefully crafted twists, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty here to startle, specifically the level of violence and macabre sensibilities the director conjures. If you had told me when I reviewed Logan Lucky last summer that Soderbergh’s next film would be anything remotely resembling Unsane, I would have scoffed incredulously at the very least. But if you were to take the big-name director’s involvement entirely off the table, Unsane would still be a twisted, creepy thrill ride with a ridiculously dynamic star turn from Claire Foy, a film that panders to the baser sensibilities while never thinking it’s more significant than it is. If Soderbergh keeps going down this road in the future, maybe I’ll finally be able to forgive him for Solaris. Rated R for disturbing behavior, violence, language and sex references.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.