Unsane (2018) starring Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, and Team America’s Matt Damon. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Unsane, a low-budget psychological thriller, is in many ways defined by two primary pre-production choices that can be interesting, annoying, or both.
The first choice is director Steven Soderbergh’s selection of an iPhone 7 Plus as his camera platform. If you expect cheapie “found footage” quality, sorry to disappoint. Five minutes in, the iPhone issue is no longer a visual trick, because it is no longer noticeable. That is subjective, but more objective is this: this does create an unusual aspect ratio (points from Jason to me!) and a somewhat flat, TV-movie feel as compared to lavish 4K treatments made for IMAX 3D. But overall, the cinematography is exceptional for a stated production budget of $1.5M—and that this was achieved with an iPhone only adds to the kudos that belong to an experienced director with self-imposed limitations to his vision.
Although… there does exist the sensation, back to “feelings” here, that Soderbergh comes at this not as a couple of zany kids working on their first movie and making do with the crummy tools they have at their disposal… but instead, as an experiment. Something of a “look at me” experiment, too. Since Soderbergh doesn’t have to limit himself, the direction exudes more of the vibe—not always successful—where a novelist decides their next murder mystery should be delivered in, oh, rhyming couplets or something.
Nonetheless: shot on an iPhone, no real star power, and $1.5M turned to profit with a $12.3M box office. Impressive.
The second choice was to go with a plot and screenplay that has exactly nothing new to say. Ever hear this one before, kids?
So this capable young woman living alone, far from family and friends, under pressures of various kinds and who admittedly expresses various mundane (at minimum) relationship and mental “issues” decides to seek advice and counseling, only to be slapped into the nuthouse for temporary observation… but, instead of waiting to unleash the hounds 24 hours later when she is freed, the scrappy young lady “understandably” lashes-out multiple times at fellow “deserving” inmates and staff, only to find her incarceration extended and—drumroll, please—a growing suspicion that she may, indeed, be flat-out nuttycakes. Or not. In this case, it’s a stalker. If it’s her stalker and not just a staff member.
Who knows? Easy now… since this has never been a plot before, let me assure you that in 98 minutes of runtime that should have been 80, you, the audience, will either know, not know, or not care.
If the plot sounds like a steaming pile of rabbit droppings, it is. Let me add that perhaps the worst performance is the only celebrity actor, longtime Soderbergh associate Matt Damon, who has what is essentially a cameo as Jason Bour… I mean, as a cheesy anti-stalker consultant.
Don’t let that prevent you from enjoying this film, however, because there are some excellent (if uneven) performances and ideas hiding in here. One female character clearly has “real” issues yet is not portrayed with madhouse abandon. A male character is convincing as both a likable addict-in-recovery and is either stark sane or perhaps hallucinatory from time to time (this, unfortunately, is “answered” when it would have been far more fun not to answer definitively). The lead actress does stupid things and is hard to like, but she has her moments, and her stalker (real or not, he is an actor) has some mildly interesting surprises here and there. A vignette of cops and a female attendant is not original, but the acting was top-notch in this little scene, especially considering the material they were given to recite.
But there is the problem.
The best use of the iPhone would have been to text “WTF RLY?” to Soderbergh in a few dozen places where the script is insurmountably flimsy. The screenplay is unforgivably stupid, such that cursory “but why did?” thoughts on the part of the viewer will yank them from the film faster than a beating from a selfie stick. This movie could, and should, have explored the fragile line between sanity, insanity, and whatever “normal” means for a spectrum of people, with emphasis on the lead character. It could have been gritty, depressing, arthouse, or really anything except boring, and the third act is predictable, boring, and falls completely to shambles anyway. Rarely a good sign when the audience is hoping the stalker (real or imaginary) slaughters the protagonist and… actually, everyone else left standing.
Instead of a “done before, but worth exploring again” subtle take on sanity, mental health institutions, and the horror that comes of loss of agency, coherence, and mobility (a major missed opportunity: the movie could have, but did not, use two extended scenes such that dementia and end-of-life hospice care patients betrayed by their internal systems were assigned a clear symbolic parallel with youthful but restrained and drugged patients betrayed by wholly external systems). Instead, we get a by-the-numbers slasher film without the slashing. The ending is not vague or open to thoughtful debate, but completely final. I won’t ruin it, but either the stalker was real, or not real. He should have been, in a drunken debate around the television, both.
One example of the “audience insult” scripting goes like this. Oh, let’s avoid spoilers. Hmm. Okay, I know. Say you are a waifish young professional female who has moved across the country and secured a new job to escape a Taco Truck against which you filed a restraining order. Be sure not to tell your mother about it, even though the Taco Truck has the power of prophecy! Why? Because the Taco Truck, depicted as childishly underdeveloped in many ways, is fiendishly clever, and (if not real, it is real to the protagonist) it has established itself, in advance, at the psychiatric hospital as a staff member, yet has no other way to know that: the protagonist will seek help (never has before), the timing should she ever do so, where or how she would seek this assistance, that she will stay beyond 24 hours in which the Taco Truck sits in neutral…
You get the point.
No, wait. Maybe there is an equally-sloppy argument (this actually seems to be the “right” one based on the third act’s, um, revelations) could be that the stalker (if he is real!) murdered a small-staff hospital’s existing “extensively background checked” orderly who nobody knew (?) by voice or face even though Mr. Stalker is on what would have to be immediate, same-day, friendly, yes-that-is-my-name, yes I have a very distinctive-power-beard basis with staff members who chat with him at length, discuss dirty laundry of the entire place openly with him, don’t wonder where he goes for extended periods of time with every key to the entire place (padded cells and all), and who, for all you kids who thought becoming a nurse or pharmacist might be a degree, or at least require a seminar or something, in this same busy little 24-hour period managed to also pick-up all required patient protocols, drug dosages and delivery mechanisms, fentanyl access, the full layout of the suddenly sprawling building and grounds… wait, but he’s also a blubbering idiot so… screw it, I quit.
In short, if Steve wanted to make a movie with “logic” like that, complete with bad-guy teleportation and a dash of Hannibal Lecter’s genius-level “life on the lamb” predictive capacity, Soderbergh should have skipped the “art” pretense (that never approached its intended target) and merely given his stalker (assuming he’s real!) a set of torture tools and a dozen “crazy” coeds to disembowel in all the gory glory that can be made with an iPhone 7 Plus and After Effects.
And yet… despite all of that, the movie is not unwatchable. And if not scrappy so much as self-flattering, it is difficult to totally hate on the self-imposed, crippling budgetary and technological hurdles faced by a famed director. A better script, a more ambiguous ending, and this movie could have been a top-ten of 2018 contender. Instead, it is disappointing primarily for being so much less than it could have been.