Steven Soderbergh has always been a vocal filmmaker. As someone who will never be shied away from speaking about things that enrage him, Soderbergh has shown in the later years of his career that he is anything but satisfied with the current climate of filmmaking. “Unsane” is an example of that frustration being spewed onto the silver screen by the mastermind behind films like “Erin Brockovich” and the “Ocean’s” trilogy. He takes a story from two less than successful writers, James Greer & Jonathan Bernstein, and encapsulates its eerie and palpable paranoia through the lens of the ordinary iPhone. A story that uses the under budget filmmaking style to its advantage by manifesting an atmosphere that is an almost hidden camera-like style of filmmaking in which the events we watch unfold on-screen feel real and palpably intimate.
The story is quite simple in that of its content, but Soderbergh’s eccentric methods and construction of the storytelling allow for the film to gain a fresh and fiery feel to its tone. The simplicity can be found in that of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a young woman whose past experiences with an obsessive stalker has led to her becoming on edge and fearful of her everyday habits. She moves 400 miles away from home in a desperate flee from the constant reminder of danger that is her obsessively compulsive stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard). We are introduced to her as a damaged, yet self-sustaining woman whose merely experienced trauma. She learns that this psychological wound is not something you can just run away from, so she reaches out to a nearby psychiatric care facility in hopes of finding someone who will listen to her release all of the pent-up emotion she has developed from this inescapable fear of paranoia.
This hope is met with a swift reality check in that of the psychiatric institutions’ insurance scam in which they lock up sane individuals for a matter of seven days until their insurance company refuses to pay upon their behalf. When the money runs out, the nightmare ends, and the individual is free to leave. A minor inconvenience for our protagonist, until she learns that she’s now trapped inside a facility in which her unwanted lover has taken up employment. Under a different name and role reversal of power, David Strine (Joshua Leonard) seems to have wiggled himself into the perfect predicament to win over his true love finally, but the question remains if this is all taking place before our very eyes or are we stuck inside of a looney bin’s head?
Soderbergh is conveying a multitude of messages throughout this film’s enveloping storyline. One of which is that of the ongoing epidemic of white-collar crime which seems to be part of the continuing exploitation of those without wealth. From the antitrust case with Bank of America to the constant vilification of the poor upon our America’s bailout system, Soderbergh is providing an intimate example of how a weak and greed-ridden association will abuse its power for another thousand dollars. He also displays the risk that the company is willing to take in one instance being that of a mix-dosage of a patient being swept under the rug and seen as a reprimand worthy of a warning. In the appropriate circumstance, it would be a cause for investigation, but an impromptu investigation from an outside source could blow the lid off the whole thing.
Soderbergh uses this intense thriller to provide subliminal messages upon that subject, but he also is offering an intimate glance at the trauma caused by what some argue is a lower tier crime in that of stalking. The constant browsing over your shoulder, the steady state of paranoia, the fear of sleeping alone, the willingness to pack up and leave everything behind at any given time. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) provides a paragraph of dialogue in her first therapy session that speaks volumes to the normalization of this behavior. She has become used to being forced to change her entire life on the flip of a coin to prevent her life or those of others from being endangered by this obsessive sociopath. Soderbergh speaks loudly and precisely on this matter and provides a far more chilling glance at the repercussions this so-called lower-tier crime can cause. Its exquisite timing with that of the “#Me-Too” movement is merely icing on the cake.
Soderbergh speaks to both of these issues with the brilliant use of storytelling. He can encapsulate these issues in a vacuum of escapism by providing us, the audience, with a protagonist who is tricky to figure out. The story takes some broad leaps of believability that call into question the authenticity of the tale being told. When a patient is suddenly murdered for example, you would expect the administration to attack it head-on to prevent an investigation into the financial records, but instead, they ignore it, a bonehead move that becomes their downfall in the end as well as a point of disarray in the narrative. When the story unravels itself though, you begin to feel that rush of enthusiasm as your leaning into the screen with heart-racing anticipation for a climactic ending. It’s masterful storytelling in that of a thrillerish fashion, a genre that Soderbergh finds himself new too but immediately successful with.
The use of the iPhone cannot go unmentioned either, Soderbergh believes this kind of cinematography to be the future of filmmaking. A radical statement that I do not agree with, but I understand his point of emphasis in that of its availability. The camera itself can become the film’s biggest downfall at times though; the iPhone struggles to depict natural lighting in the same way that a RED camera would or that of a DSLR. The dimness works in certain scenes by creating this organic feel of imagery that feels as if we’re watching hidden camera footage as evidence of this heinous crime. But, in other circumstances when we need to see the actors face to create a stronger sense of resonation, we are left with a shadowed figure instead. It becomes distracting, and this may have just been a lighting issue that Soderbergh was either too lazy to fix or adamant about including for artistic purposes. Nonetheless, it distracts me from the story which was most likely not the intention.
“Unsane” is another showcase of change in filmmaking for the unfathomable year that 2018 has been for us as film goers. The cinema has almost become a place of unpredictability and unlimited potential this year, and Soderbergh aids in that change with a uniquely lensed film that unravels a paranoia infested narrative. To add on top of those two achievements, Claire Foy and Joshua Leonard are exceptional in their performances. Claire provides a raw and emotionally enthralling performance that made me leap out of my seat at times from the amount of cathartic release she was giving me. Joshua Leonard is endlessly creepy in his depiction of the calmed sociopath in which his self-professed innocence makes it hard to fight away the urge to punch him in the face.
Soderbergh achieves all of this brilliance on an iPhone. The same device I used to buy my ticket with before seeing this film, and that may be his most resounding message delivered from “Unsane.” The idea of making excuses not to be a filmmaker has almost become eradicated indefinitely. You now have a camera to carry with you, and Soderbergh is proverbially reaching through the silver screen and violently shaking young filmmakers and screaming “GO MAKE YOUR FILM!” There are no more excuses not too. And though the iPhone may not be the future of filmmaking, filmmakers are. No one can argue with that, and that may be Soderbergh’s most inspiring message in this absorbing display of low-budget filmmaking.