In many ways, Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s return to the caper genre of the Ocean’s Eleven series, was a baffling re-entry for the American auteur to the world of feature filmmaking. While it motioned to the idea of poor Southerners getting their revenge on an uncaring society, Logan Lucky seemed to chime with my least favourite aspects of Soderbergh’s filmography: rather than subverting a genre, it provided a clever metanarrative on the classic forms and tricks of, say, a heist film. Much like David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh’s mandate has always been to push and prod at the limits of genre itself – sometimes eliding deeper meaning or feeling from character or theme.
Unsane, then, feels like the real comeback. A psychological horror thriller shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus, and following the plight of a woman wrongly committed to psychiatric confinement, Unsane continues Soderbergh’s obsession with the possibilities of genre filmmaking, along with his ongoing theme of paranoid individuals resisting the mortal dangers of oppressive institutions.
The film opens with a kind of visual peepshow motif, possessed of a stalker’s creepy eyes watching Sawyer Valentini, a young, no-nonsense analyst at a bank, played by British actor Claire Foy. Acting as cinematographer, Soderbergh makes sure we’re always looking at Sawyer through something else – through blurry leaves obstructing our field of vision, over the sides of an office chicken-pen cubicle (the first site of Sawyer’s imprisonment, it seems). In the film’s formal structure, we’re deep inside the anxious world of smartphone technology: a communications device turned daily corporate surveillance agent.
Quickly, that look-through spy motif is replaced by Sawyer’s own viewpoint. Her world has been upturned by an ex-boyfriend (Joshua Leonard); she sees him everywhere despite having moved 400 miles interstate, and she thinks, in her direst moments, of inducing her own death. ‘Your life slips away from you, you know?’ she confides to a counsellor, straight to the camera. ‘I know it’s my neuroses colluding with my imagination to manifest my worst fears – I’m alone in a new city and I never feel safe.’ Bureaucracy, and the narrative, kicks in swiftly, and the counsellor asks her to sign a boilerplate contract ensuring confidentiality. Within minutes, Sawyer is stripped and confined, more a prisoner than a patient. ‘Where’s the outrage?’ Sawyer asks the pasty psychiatrist. ‘Who’s my advocate?’ So deeply embedded are we in Sawyer’s viewpoint, that when she first sees her stalker dispensing medicine to her, we, like her, think this surely must be a delusion – that being treated crazy makes for crazy – and it’s this turnaround that makes the film work.
In using a convention most common to horror filmmaking – the first-person camera – Soderbergh aligns corporate conspiracy with a woman’s nightmare of stalking by an ex.
Sawyer’s only friend on the inside, an opioid addict (Jay Pharaoh) who lords over the facility’s black market (phone access for blow jobs), delivers a monologue that serves as the film’s master thesis on corporate America today: ‘You talk, they find a way to get you admitted until insurance pays, then bam, you’re cured. It’s like every other business in America,’ he says. ‘They’re locking up sane people for profit?’ says Sawyer. ‘I’m in here for seven days because my insurance approved it?’ Hospital beds, it seems, are governed by the same imperatives as hotel rooms: fill them and cash in.
Soderbergh has trespassed this thematic terrain before, in 2013’s Side Effects, in which psychiatrists – backed by Big Pharma – dope their patients with dodgy antidepressants. What has changed with Unsane is Soderbergh’s unity of theme, genre and form. In using a convention most common to horror filmmaking – the first-person camera, as per Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project before it – Soderbergh aligns corporate conspiracy with a woman’s nightmare of stalking by an ex.
Point-of-view camerawork pushes out the aesthetic possibilities of working with iPhones, or rather, the formal playfulness impelled by the iPhone’s technological limitations now aid a familiar Soderbergh conceptual vision. The bleached-out whites and hard, shallow surfaces of the film image bely ghastly depths, and a solitary confinement room becomes a whirlwind space for Soderbergh to nimbly move the iPhone, unencumbered from weighty film gear. But it’s Unsane’s stalker logic that really converges its form with its content: medical industry connivances conspire with the perversion of romantic love. Sawyer’s bearded, introverted stalker suffers from the kind of MRA mentality that mixes entitlement, desire and hatred for women. He feels ripped off by women, by love itself, and his language brings out the most disturbing dimensions of what Sawyer derides as ‘greeting card cliches and romance novel declarations.’ Sawyer, you are always on my mind, I love you now and forever xoxoxoxo, he writes in flashback, in a note with a bouquet.
It’s Unsane’s stalker logic that really converges its form with its content: medical industry connivances conspire with the perversion of romantic love.
This theme – of the dangerous lie of romance – has been explored elsewhere, particularly in New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston’s Perfect Strangers. It is perfectly suited to the thriller genre, which has historically positioned women characters as victims without an analysis of why women suffer violence at the hands of their partners. In Unsane, the paternalistic mental institution becomes a ripe site for these ideas – unlike the best-known psychiatric conspiracy film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, here lies the intersection of pathology and misogyny, for a woman’s loss of control over her life and her mind.
The gender critique, and its expression in institutions, is introduced early, when Sawyer deftly deflects some low-grade sexual harassment from her new boss. Such is the sophistication of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script that it doesn’t render Sawyer a ‘sweet, kind girl’ – that’s another male delusion of feminine softness, projected onto her by her perpetrator. Sawyer is a ruthless woman capable of manipulation and cruelty, but the corporate language that she uses to evade her boss doesn’t work on the nurses and administrators. Where I often felt her performance in The Crown was too warm for the infamously cold Queen Elizabeth, Claire Foy’s performance here drives into Sawyer’s hard edges with skill and precision.
Given how Unsane incorporates women’s real-world fears into the genre of the psychological thriller, I’m curious as to how critical and audience interpretations will fall along gender lines (most of its critical respondents, so far, are men). To me, it is more brutal than it had to be. The film, steady and controlled, explodes to full-out horror in its final act – and the notion that Sawyer may or may not sell out another woman to secure her own freedom is a unnecessary depravity to manipulatively hike the dramatic stakes. But until then its violence is modulated and loaded with intentionality. Unsane doesn’t just feel like a conceptual gambit or an exploitative potboiler, or a gimmicky pitch at an iPhone opus. Its stalker logic feels real – in its threat and in the horrors of its realisation.
Unsane doesn’t just feel like a conceptual gambit or an exploitative potboiler, or a gimmicky pitch at an iPhone opus. Its stalker logic feels real – in its threat and in the horrors of its realisation.
If the plot is fantastical, the conspiratorial logic beneath it isn’t. In Unsane, even stopping stalkers is a business opportunity. A subplot sees Sawyer hire the services of a schmucky PI-meets-security expert played by Matt Damon, who specialises in stalker protection and hawks a Tony Robbins-style book, The Gift of Fear. Such is the narrowness of America’s political imagination: a problem can only be met with a market solution. I suspect Soderbergh’s critique in Unsane stretches even broader. In just a few strokes (Sawyer wolfing down salad, alone, from a plastic container, while FaceTiming her mum at lunch) he summons a vision of a terribly alienated society, of Sawyer’s life as isolated and career-driven at the expense of other relationships.
The insurance scam hinges on exploiting the gulf of difference between suicidal ideation and suicidal behaviour – unusually psychologically astute shades of variation for a commercial genre piece, or any piece of cinema. It’s in this gulf that an accomplished, assertive career woman can see her life unspool in a matter of days. The medical establishment, shown in interstitial overhead shots as remote and surrounded by grim, mossy-green woods, is a place of humiliation, dehumanisation and powerlessness for its inhabitants. This is vintage Soderbergh: nobody will help you. Cops are rotund and inert. Lawyers are disinterested scammers. Even your mother scolds you for not asking for help earlier.
Everything is a scam, the film chants. Everything is a scam.
Unsane is in cinemas now.