I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement in 2013, stating that he was frustrated with Hollywood, its focus on huge, (supposedly) safe blockbusters, and the subsequent squeezing out of smaller, more challenging films. He also said at the time that he felt that “movies don’t matter anymore” as cultural touchstones. He unretired last year to give us the middling Logan Lucky, a blah imitation of his own Ocean’s Eleven; if that movie was intended to make us nostalgic for those smaller films that the studios aren’t interested in backing anymore, it failed. But Soderbergh may have found his groove again — or, rather, a new groove for a new movie environment — with the unusually unsettling psychological thriller Unsane.
As a piece of craft, Unsane is a smack in the face to what Hollywood has become in recent years, bloated with megabudget action fantasies full of impossible monsters and superheroes that demand armies of CGI grunts to create. (I often like those movies, but a diet of nothing but them gets tedious.) Using off-the-shelf iPhones, apps, lenses, and drones, Soderbergh — who served as his own cinematographer, as he often does — shot the film mostly in one location, with a small cast and almost impossibly tiny crew. They prepared not so much in secret as under the radar, because that’s easy to do — it’s almost inevitable — with such a small production footprint. Unsane’s budget? A measly $1.2 million… which is the precise same dollar amount as Soderbergh’s very first film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, almost 30 years ago. And that was considered low-budget then.
Not that it’s like Soderbergh whipped his cellphone out of his pocket and made a movie off the cuff. If you didn’t know Unsane wasn’t shot in a more traditional manner, you’d never guess it from looking at what ended up on the big screen. The movie does have a rough, edgy energy, one that is perfect for its story, but that is, I suspect, at least as much a result of the freedom that comes with not having a big corporation breathing down your neck as what kind of gear was used. (The quick-and-dirty filmmaking extends to the script, by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer [as a team: The Spy Next Door], which was written in 10 days, and serves as another smack to the often overly massaged, endlessly reworked studio scripts that end up having to credit half a dozen writers, or more.)
Still, the dull colors and that certain video flatness to the photography only underscore the plight of office worker Sawyer Valentini (an amazing Claire Foy: Breathe, Rosewater), who goes for a brief consultation with a therapist and ends up accidentally signing a form submitting herself “voluntarily” to a 24-hour commitment at a mental hospital. (Always read what you’re signing! Though how many of us really do?) Her panic, once she realizes what has happened, and her inability to get anyone in charge to listen to her, to see that this is all a terrible mistake, is the stuff of bureaucracy-gone-mad, the medicalization of perfectly healthy anxieties and distresses, and the deficits of mental health care we’ve seen before: Unsane! It’s Brazil meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!
Unsane is a horror story, too, of America’s for-profit health-care environment, with an angle on that that is nightmarish in a way I haven’t seen onscreen before. But if Soderbergh was aiming for some cultural-touchstone power, he couldn’t have done better than with the film’s terrific — in all senses of the word — feminist twist on the familiar tropes of its overlapping genres. It’s not just that the story is framed from a woman’s perspective: it’s that the baggage and the experience that Sawyer brings with her amps up the dread and the dismay in a way that extends its power and its relevance way beyond the edges of this pulpy little thriller.
Sawyer needed to talk to a therapist, you see, because she is on the run from a stalker, having moved hundreds of miles from Boston to Philadelphia to escape him, and she’s having trouble coping with the stress of that. “I’m alone in a strange city,” she tells the therapist, “and I never feel safe.” Her stalker’s face seems to pop up everywhere; like, suddenly, on the random stranger she brings home for a one-night stand. And then — as her 24 hours in the psych ward gets extended to a week — she suddenly starts seeing his face on one of the nurses (Joshua Leonard: The Town That Dreaded Sundown, If I Stay).
Is it really him? Everyone in the hospital denies that he’s anyone but a carefully vetted psychiatric nurse, and definitely not her stalker. Are they lying, and if so, why would they do that? Is this place making her crazy? She wonders as much out loud to another patient on the ward, Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah: Sing, Top Five), whom she has befriended; he seems pretty sane, but he has some theories about this hospital that, honestly, sound a bit too pathologically paranoid to be true, so maybe they’re both a little mad? It all becomes a horrifying metaphor for how women are not believed, how we are derided as lunatic and hysterical, how we gaslight ourselves into doubting the evidence of our own experience when we are subjected to harassment and abuse by men, or even just in the whole big wide world where entrenched sexism dictates the tenor of so much of how we are treated. (The first scene of the film features Sawyer’s new boss creeping on her. Or maybe not? Maybe his was an honest and strictly work-related invitation that they go to a conference together and stay at a fancy hotel? *argh*)
The monsters of Unsane are all too real — no CGI required — all too banal, and all the more disturbing for it. But this invitation to get inside the head of a woman like Sawyer, to inevitably empathize with her plight by prisming an underappreciated real-life viewpoint through familiar genre clichés? That’s radical, and very much welcome.
Up-and-coming filmmaker Sean Baker shot his marvelous Tangerine a couple of years ago on iPhones — which worked beautifully, and also granted the freedom for the telling of a previously untold sort of story, one about a transgender sex worker. A couple of years and a couple of generations of iPhones later makes an enormous difference, in a technical sense, but the path to an alternate movie future is even clearer now than it was when Soderbergh first shook up Hollywood with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which helped to kick off a renaissance in independent film. Let Hollywood keep the CGI blockbusters: there is plenty of room for smart, entertaining filmmaking, and plenty of new stories to be told, on smaller budgets and tighter margins than ever before.