Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Steven Soderbergh has fashioned himself as a pioneer when it comes to the art of filmmaking. He’s always up for experimenting with new tricks of the trade – whether those involve technical handiwork, or revolutionizing distribution models, like he did last year with the practically pristine LOGAN LUCKY. The hunger, thirst and desire for a better functioning, streamlined business is certainly an admirable quality in an independent, artistic spirit. That said, when you have as much clout as Soderbergh does, it’s a big ask to get audiences to flock to a movie shot on an iPhone. This format made waves back in 2015 when director Sean Baker shot TANGERINE entirely on his iPhone, but now, unless you have no budget to work with, where’s the thrill? This is the larger mysterious question rather than the one in the story of Soderbergh’s UNSANE, a psychological thriller shot in an iPhone by someone who doesn’t know how to use an iPhone. Steven, you need to tap the screen! With a deliberately off-putting aesthetic and a questionable narrative with very little satisfying return, this is an experiment that implodes before the resolve.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a prickly accounts analyst who’s on the precipice of a breakdown. She’s unkind to her coworkers. Her boss is a skeezy letch. And, thanks to a traumatic experience with a stalker a few years earlier, she can’t trust anyone – not even a one-night stand she picks up in a bar. All she has is her mother Angela (Amy Irving) to speak with, but even Mom doesn’t know the whole truth. Wanting to put her life back on track, Sawyer seeks solace in psychotherapy at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center. She confesses paranoia is eclipsing her daily routine. But next thing she knows – bada bing, bada boom – she’s unwittingly committed herself to a 24-hour voluntary hold. It’s here, of course, where her sanity begins to deteriorate. This includes seeing the face of her stalker on that of George Shaw (Joshua Leonard), a male nurse at the facility. But is this real, or imagined?
Through prominent visual cues, Soderbergh gives us a direct line into Sawyer’s psyche. We see all the men in her world – both strangers and familiars – through her POV, assessing her, leering at her in the workplace, staring as she walks by them on the way to lunch. The lenses he uses to capture any of these glares put the audience at unease as they lack any sort of depth of field. It gives the images a muted fish-eye effect. The auteur further emphasizes Sawyer’s crumbling mindset, framing her either off to the side, at the bottom, or in the middle of frame – a visual comment on our heroine’s lack of psychological command. She’s set off-balance and so are we.
While all of this is an endlessly fascinating artistic choice that hammers home the narrative and its themes, an ugly dichotomy presents itself. For all its enhanced style, Soderbergh’s cinematography skills (which are typically solid) surprisingly wind up compromising his actors’ performances. Jay Pharoah, who plays Sawyer’s savvy fellow patient Nate, stumbles into bad lighting on more than one occasion. But most egregious is the poor lighting and staging during an integral third act argument between Foy and Leonard. It’s painful to watch and yet it’s the longest sequence in the film. Leonard is giving the performance of a lifetime in that padded cell, but we’ll never know it since it wasn’t lit appropriately.
Is this a deeper condemnation from the filmmaker on a souring of “the male gaze” in cinema? Perhaps, although no fine point is made about this. The story spun by screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (if those are their real names – not just pseudonyms like Soderbergh adopted as the editor and cinematographer here) seems to corroborate this. This imprisoned woman tale holds allegorical connections to the cultural zeitgeist doing the same to women for decades – treating them as crazy, liking them when they are sedate and giving more weight to men’s actions. Also included are some conspiracy-laced ramblings on privatized insurance when it comes to the mentally ill and their facilities.
Superficially speaking though, when it comes to the plot, it does require audiences to jump through a few hoops to stay with it. You’re forced to buy that Sawyer, who pores over numbers with accuracy at her job, wouldn’t look over the forms with a fine-tooth comb. A throwaway, voice-over line of her asking if she needs to read these forms doesn’t quite cut it. Once you see the shiv belonging to Sawyer’s aggressive antagonist Violet (Juno Temple), you know it will get a call back. However, the real breaking point occurs once the audience figures out if Sawyer is sane, or insane. The film loses its motor from there.
The title is supposed to evoke the words “insane” and “unsafe” – two emotional states women have been made to feel by an oppressive society. However, what transpires is more of a gobbledygook of ideas feeding into the titular word. It’s clear Soderbergh and company wanted to put their spin on REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Trouble is, what they ultimately created was something far less than classic. Maybe this would’ve fared better if they used an Android phone.
UNSANE opens on March 23.