When Steven Soderbergh makes a movie, he never just makes a movie. Last year's comeback film Logan Lucky acted as the test case for a new means of distribution, and he followed that picture with Mosaic, a six-part HBO series that also functioned as an interactive app-based experience. The goal for Soderbergh in all of his post-retirement filmmaking appears to be to innovate, to experiment, and also – crucially – to have fun doing it. He has often spoken about his lack of interest in making anything that could be deemed an 'important' film, and his latest effort Unsane is about as far from prestige filmmaking as one could get. Apparently shot in ten days for $1.5 million, Unsane is pure B-movie pulp in the Sam Fuller mould, and it's Soderbergh's most invigorating work in years.
The experimental component of this film is Soderbergh's decision to embrace the iPhone and to shoot the whole film using that device. This isn't exactly a major artistic breakthrough in itself – Sean Baker's Tangerine set the standard for iPhone cinematography in 2015 – but utilising this shooting method has given Soderbergh what he always seems to be chasing: liberation. Soderbergh gets close to his actors, circling them, shooting them from unexpected angles and utilising the camera's depth of focus purposefully to accentuate the paranoia of his anxious protagonist Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). She's a bank analyst in Pennsylvania, having moved there from Boston with the intention of starting a new life. Her old life had been all but destroyed by the determined affections of a stalker, and a restraining order hasn't done enough to heal the emotional and psychological wounds that David Strine (an excellent Joshua Leonard) left behind him. She still thinks she sees Strine in every bearded male who crosses her path, and when a casual Tinder hookup leaves her shaking with fear in the bathroom, Sawyer decides she needs professional help.
The paperwork snafu that sees Sawyer voluntarily committing to 24 hours under psychiatric observation initially seems like a bad joke – how many of us happily sign 'boilerplate' agreements without reading the small print? – but as one day extends into two, and then a week, Unsane starts to feel like an endless nightmare. She tries calling 911 to report that she is being held against her will, but a nurse informs her that they receive such calls every single day – “But those are from crazy people,” Sawyer responds, her eyes wild with panic. Claire Foy's eyes tell us a lot in Unsane, particularly as the director frequently asks her to stare directly into his lens. Sawyer is an abrasive, forthright character and it's a struggle for her to play nice, to be the good, docile patient that everyone tells her is the key to her release. We can always see her calculating her options, looking for ways to manipulate those around her to her advantage, while struggling to maintain her increasingly fragile grip on her own sanity. It's an electrifying performance, and one that's crucial for keeping us invested in a film that is always teetering on the edge of absurdity.
Is Unsane a silly movie? Yeah, it kind of is. You need to swallow a lot of implausibilities and look past a number of clunky plot details to enjoy it, but then the film offers so much to enjoy! Unsane has some of hysterical energy of films like The Snake Pit and Shock Corridor (the character played by an affable Jay Pharoah feels like a nod to Fuller's film), and Soderbergh is firing on all cylinders here. I loved the simple but brilliantly effective use of multiple exposures to share Sawyer's subjective experience of a hallucinogenic, while a climactic confrontation between Foy and Leonard in a padded cell is intense and brilliantly acted. The film slips gleefully from comedy to horror, and while it perhaps teeters too far into traditional slasher movie tropes in its overextended final moments, Unsane always feels thrillingly alive.
Those final moments take place in the woods as night falls, and a deep blue pall is cast across the film. Soderbergh's iPhone camera sometimes struggles to make out the distinguishing features of the actors in such an environment, and while the director has been full of praise for this gadget as a filmmaking tool, its limitations are often glaringly evident. Unsane is full of crude, overexposed lighting and flat colours, but I found it refreshing to see a digital film that actually looks like a digital film. I've always had a fondness for the digital cinema of the late '90s and early 2000s, films that had their own distinct look and texture, before digital cinematography evolved to become a cheaper, lesser substitute for celluloid, and Unsane feels like a throwback to that visually fascinating era. iPhones won't replace movie cameras, but they will offer an alternative method of production that has its own aesthetic virtues and flaws, and it will be fascinating to see how more directors utilise it. By the time they do, Steven Soderbergh will surely have long moved on to his next experiment.