Is there a mainstream filmmaker with as strange a filmography as one Steven Soderbergh? From suave heist capers to intense drug trafficking dramas, from a gaudy male stripper fantasia to small, nasty genre romps, this is a director who seems to be able to expertly balance big-budget, broad entertainments with smaller, more intimately experimental works. Making its way somewhere in between those two poles, then, is ‘Unsane’, the latest entry in the current, post-not-quite-retirement phase of his career.
The excellently named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, worlds away from her work on Netflix’s ‘The Crown’) is an anonymous presence in an anonymous city. Trying to rebuild her life after finally escaping from the delusional stalker who terrorised her for years, and who she still sees everywhere she goes, Sawyer’s frayed nerves and mental trauma lead her to seek help at a seemingly benign psychiatric hospital. However, after a hopeful initial consultation, she foregoes the fine print on a series of forms and finds herself involuntarily committed and trapped inside a truly Kafkaesque nightmare - the more she professes her own sanity, the crazier she seems. To make matters worse, she’s still seeing her stalker; only now he might not be a figment of her paranoid imagination, but in disguise as her nurse and eager for a reunion.
Tightening the screws with unfettered glee, this is Soderbergh on truly grimy, trashy form - in the best way possible. Oozing paranoia in an unashamedly schlocky genre exercise, the film taps into some particularly modern concerns around the perils of not believing women and the evils of institutions scamming the people they’re supposedly helping. But really, all of that is secondary to the nasty pulp of it all, as Soderbergh gets to play Hitchcock and use every trick in his arsenal to ratchet up the suspense and keep the audience supremely uncomfortable for the entirety of the film’s tight, itchy 90-minute runtime. Fittingly, this is actually the sort of film you can totally imagine the master of suspense himself tackling at some point in his career, most likely his later, more lurid and nasty period in the 1970s. In many ways, it’s an update of his favoured "wrong man" scenario for the #MeToo era, with a villain built of toxic masculinity and "nice guy" malice – but again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves by placing too much uncalled-for insight or complexity into the story directed and written by men about a woman getting pretty relentlessly psychologically brutalised.
Foy is a revelation, all frayed nerves and fury-infused terror constantly bubbling less than a millimetre under the surface
Sure, there are fairly ludicrous plot contrivances as the film races towards its conclusion, but its Foy’s stunning central performance and Soderbergh’s remarkable filmmaking that keep things on track. Foy is a revelation, all frayed nerves and fury-infused terror constantly bubbling less than a millimetre under the surface. Most interesting is her steadfast refusal to sand down the pricklier edges of the character, feeling no need to make Sawyer particularly endearing or tone down the unapologetically sharp scars of trauma. If anything, it definitely makes a convincing case for her previously unexpected casting as the new Lisbeth Salander.
Of course, the other star of the show is the tricked-up iPhone 7 Soderbergh used to shoot the film, and the director is clearly having a ball with the freedom and opportunities afforded by the technology. The way he’s able to construct images with collapsed depths, narrow perspectives, and a certain tetchy, sickly texture is strangely, beautifully ugly, and perfectly suited to the B-movie exploitation vibe of the whole endeavour.
Not just a gimmick, but not quite transcending its pulpy genre origins, ‘Unsane’ is mean, it’s nasty, and entertaining as hell. Maybe just have a shower after.