Unsane (2018)

MARCH 23, 2018


When I was 12 I used to grab my dad's video camera and try to make little movies; I distinctly remember tying things to string (not even fishing wire!) and trying to pull off "invisible" tricks after seeing Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Then I'd watch the video and besides being dismayed at how bad my FX shots were (the telephone spinning haphazardly on my string definitely betrayed the idea it was being held by an invisible person), I'd be curious why my images never looked as great as they did in the movies I watched. "They must have a special camera!" I figured, and sooner or later I'd discover that was indeed the case, and those "special" cameras shot film, not VHS tapes. I couldn't help but think about that a few times while watching Unsane, because not only did it not require my full attention during a few too many stretches, but I also kept wondering why anyone, let alone Steven Soderbergh, would want their feature film to look like something a kid could do.

And I'm not exaggerating; much has been made about the film being shot on an iPhone, i.e. the same device a number of you have in your pocket or perhaps are even reading this review on in between Instagram perusals. It's not the first film to be shot this way, but it's certainly the most high profile, made even more interesting when you consider that Soderbergh said he was retiring a few years ago and stuck to that promise for a few years before coming back with Logan Lucky last year. He's got another movie in the can already and another has been announced, which is pretty good for a retirement that was announced five years ago. There are a lot of directors who have made no such announcement and haven't made a single movie since then, but he's done three and has a fourth in the works. Can Martin Brest or John Carpenter "retire" like this? That'd be nice.

Back on point - if he's gonna un-retire, the project has gotta be something special, right? That's where I get tripped up, as this is not only nothing memorable beyond a filmmaking method that does it no real favors (plus if we wanted an lo-fi looking horror movie set in an institution, we have Session 9, which is infinitely better), but it's not even new territory for him. His one-time swan song Side Effects tread a lot of the same ground (a woman in jeopardy, paranoia, evil medical practices, "men suck") and was a much better film overall, so beyond the idea of going into more traditional horror territory I'm not sure what exactly excited him about this script. It's not a bad movie really, it's just one of those ones that never really kicks into a higher gear than its basic premise would suggest, doling out information in a clunky manner that makes it difficult to latch onto anything. Claire Foy plays a lonely workaholic who had a previous encounter with a stalker that's left her frazzled, and she accidentally commits herself to a one day (and then one-week) mandatory evaluation in a psychiatric ward, only to start seeing her stalker among the staff. Is she crazy, or did this guy manage to follow her so well that he was able to get a job at the place one day later?

I'll get into that later since it's spoiler territory, but I don't think I'm breaking the rules to say you find out at about the halfway mark, at which point the movie unfolds more or less like you'd expect having probably seen this kind of scenario play out in both directions over the years. The answer is never as important as the need to make sure what happens next is just as compelling, and unfortunately in this case the script is not up to the task - one you got the answer you might as well go home early. And it's a shame, because there is a late-game "twist" of sorts that is fascinating and kind of original, but it's introduced too late to have enough of an impact on the movie as a whole. Maybe if the narrative switched entirely at this point and focused on this new development, leaving the stalker stuff behind as a sort of slow-burn Macguffin, it would be enough to shift the movie into "must-see" territory, but this plot point is frustratingly left under-explored while also reducing the tension of Foy's dilemma.

Foy, by the way, is the reason the movie is still worth seeing. She made a good first impression on me with Season of the Witch, way back in 2011, but apart from a bit role in Vampire Academy I haven't seen her in anything since, making this the first time I've seen her carry a film. Thankfully she does a fine job; her character isn't the most likable person in the world, but I love how she dealt with the random male losers in her life (the scene with her boss is A+ and timely af) and she handles the paranoia stuff quite well. There's a scene where she dresses down a would-be suitor by theorizing about the women that have turned him down (paraphrasing: "Did she tell you she just liked you as a friend, or did she actually get sick? Or did she just LAUGH?") and it's a wonderful bit of business, and also one of the few times the iPhone-ography pays off, allowing Soderbergh (or whoever the phone owner was; I assume no one else was allowed to hold it in case a private text came through during a take) to swirl around Foy and the other actor in a tiny room as she kept hammering away at him, reducing him to (deserved) tears. Honestly if the movie was nothing more than a series of scenes where she takes down a bunch of MRA dipshits and assorted other stereotypes, I probably would have liked it a lot more.

OK now I gotta get into spoilers, so you should stop here until you've seen the film. Final warning!

But Foy and her razor tongue isn't enough to make up for the fact that the second half of this movie is like a comedy that had all of the jokes trimmed. She isn't crazy - her stalker (played by Josh Leonard, by the way) really did follow her to the institute and get a job as an orderly. We find out later that he killed the real orderly and assumed his identity, but no further explanation, leaving us with two options: his coworkers didn't notice he wasn't the same guy, or that he was just happening to start there on the day after she arrived (so no one would KNOW what he looked like), making it incredibly lucky timing on his part. Especially when you consider the film's other twist, which is that he isn't the only shady/murderous one there, as the hospital is basically a giant scam - they trick people into signing themselves up for treatment (in Foy's case they ask her to sign a few "routine" forms that turn out to be admission papers, because she trusted them enough not to read them first) so they can get the insurance companies to pay them for care the people aren't actually receiving, and will murder anyone who finds out about it. A more interesting movie would have Leonard's character react to this, maybe even use it as an excuse to be a hero for the woman he thinks he loves by helping her escape, but the two storylines never intersect. He even kills another patient who was catching on to the hospital's practice, but (another coincidence) only because the guy was getting close to Claire so he wanted him out of the way. I don't need every question answered in a movie, but when it's the only kind of interesting thing in it, it's impossible not to be annoyed that it get such short thrift in favor of a generic chase through the woods.

And all of that ludicrous plotting that would be fine in a schlockier movie, but that's not what Soderbergh really does and the movie is too bland to look at to really make that sort of thing pop. You need a Brian De Palma or Dario Argento kind of flair to get anyone to buy this (and I can't help but think those filmmakers in particular were on the brain, as Soderbergh cast De Palma regular Amy Irving in a bit part, and "Unsane" is an alternate title for Tenebre), and really dive into the over the top elements and violence, so that the audience is kind of drunk on the sheer bombast of it all. This movie skips over most of its kills (one confusingly so - I have no idea who murdered the dark haired orderly) and due to the obvious limitations of its format can't really go big with its setpieces - even insert shots feel a bit awkward, so the wackier elements of the script fall flat. For every moment where the iPhone made an excellent choice (POV shots of Leonard leering or simply staring at Foy, mostly) there are a few that make me wish he abandoned the experiment after a day of shooting and got real cameras to make the rest. There's a scene where Foy is trapped in a trunk, and it occurred to me that twenty years ago he was shooting - if there is a ranking of such things - the best trunk scene in movie history, and doing it just fine with a big clunky ol' 35mm camera. As with 3D, CGI, etc. there's nothing wrong with the idea of using "lesser" cameras for certain things - but it's still a tool that only serves certain purposes. Just as you'd only use a hammer for nails and not for screws and bolts, the camera you're using should be the best one for that particular job, and while it's fine for the quieter scenes, overall I think the script deserved the full toolbox, so to speak.

Soderbergh makes some other puzzling choices, such as inserting a distracting cameo from one of his frequent collaborators at a very odd time, and cutting away from Claire's perspective at a point where we're still unsure if she's just going crazy or not (and thus answering the question even earlier). Even the reveal that she HAD a stalker is presented in a very awkward way, as if it was previously established in a scene (or even a line) that got cut - it actually makes more sense in the trailer than it does in the film. This is a guy who has made nearly thirty movies that have grossed over a billion dollars in the US alone - why does it often feel like a first feature from some 25 year old kid who managed to get the film released to Redbox by casting Lance Henriksen or someone like that for a day's work? Apart from the acting (not just Foy; it's always good to see Leonard, and Jay Pharoah is also solid as one of Foy's fellow patients) everything here runs dangerously close to amateur hour, and I'd have trouble with some of it even if it WAS from the work of first-timers, while hoping they could learn from their mistakes next time. But this guy's got an Oscar, so I can't help but expect more from him than a movie that has technical AND narrative blunders. I can deal with a few terrible script choices a lot easier if I know I couldn't round up a few of my actor friends, charge my phone, and produce superior results.

What say you?


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