Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane entices the audience with a ceaselessly frightening idea: being held against your will and slowly questioning your sanity. But does the talented filmmaker waste a great premise on this occasion?
There are very few directors whose works I watch regardless of their quality. Steven Soderbergh is one of them. No matter which genre he tackles — trust me, he has tackled a lot — his expertise in storytelling and camerawork always seeps through. However, his passions are strongest in his non-mainstream works. In these films, you surrender to Soderbergh and let him take you on a journey through his mind. Sometimes it succeeds, such as with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his wonderfully complex and touching debut. Sometimes it polarises, such as with Bubble, his minimalist experiment that feels more pointless than unique. This should explain my excitement and scepticism when watching Unsane.
The film boldly declares itself as non-mainstream by being entirely shot on an iPhone. It further entices the audience with a ceaselessly frightening idea: being held against your will and slowly questioning your sanity. In this film, the nightmare lands upon Sawyer Valentini, who is confined to a hospital with the person she believes is her stalker, but “is she or isn’t she?” Even the film’s tagline makes you wonder.
Unfortunately, that question is answered much earlier than one might expect. Much of the film unfolds like so, a series of mysteries that are solved before the tension sets in. Soderbergh drains the film of uncertainty and doubts, creating a predictable trail of events. Of course, part of the problem lies with screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, whose fascinating premise loses tension due to this lack of uncertainty. I cannot help but borrow the title of Manohla Dargis’ review of the film, “It’s Not Paranoia if Someone’s After You”. You could extend this to my reaction to the film: it is hard to feel paranoid if I know that someone is after the protagonist and, more importantly, if I can foresee his next moves.
To someone who has not seen the film, and perhaps to some who have, my criticisms may seem invalid. There are films that demand that the outcome be known in order for the drama to work. Often, it is because the crux of the story lies beyond the mystery itself. But Unsane is not that type of film. If it is trying to be, its attempts are underdeveloped. There are shreds of social commentary regarding modern corporations, but the word “commentary” overstates the film’s accomplishments. It is more accurate to call it a subplot that motivates the main storyline. When “commentary” does appear, it is a drastic simplification of pertinent issues.
There is another moment in Unsane that hints at what the film could have been. The scene unfolds in a solitary confinement cell, with characters waging a simple but disquieting psychological battle. The pains that Sawyer had to endure are now manifested in front of the audience. Tension is gained because, just like the people in the cell, the audience cannot anticipate what comes next. The unstable characters make everything susceptible to change. Sadly, those mind games are not sustained for long. The film verges into such territory only to return to the predictable cat-and-mouse chase. Although scenes of such psychological discomfort can be intriguing if developed fully, the film does not take that route, choosing a different tale of suspense instead. The regrettable thing is that the suspense fades before it even arises.
Let me clarify something in fear that my words sound overly critical. The film is still a pleasure to watch, largely due to the performances by Claire Foy and Joshua Leonard. Foy embodies an anxious and broken individual from the moment she appears. Her lone battle against her stalker comes with stress and anger, earning the audience’s empathy even when she acts aggressively. Leonard, on the other hand, plays the stalker with deceiving warmth. His violent tendencies are withheld for a long time, which only makes his superficiality more intimidating. Leonard takes that to his advantage with every move and every smile, knowing that the sense of hostility will never subdue.
But these qualities are incapable of rescuing the film. Unsane not only loses a great premise with tension waiting to be unleashed, but also a chance to prove that equipment does not determine a film’s quality. To be clear, I still believe in that argument. A professional camera can improve the look of a film, but it is rendered useless without a strong story. Although Soderbergh goes too far in suggesting that some viewers will have “no idea this was shot on the phone”, there is nothing wrong with shooting on a phone either. One of the wonders of cinema is that amateur equipment can make great films. What
Unsane reminds us is that it can make mediocre ones as well.
Written by Ron Ma
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins
Released: 2018 / Genre: Psychological Horror
Country: USA / IMDB
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Unsane was released in UK cinemas on March 23, 2018.