Thursday, July 19, 2018

Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)


The best part of Steven Soderbergh's Unsane is easily the first half--when unwary businesswoman Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy from The Crown) is suddenly committed to a mental ward for unbecoming thoughts about suicidal ideation.

It happens casually--don't really see it coming cept for the way the counselor (Myra Lucretia Taylor) lowers her head and narrows her eyes at a few chance remarks Sawyer makes about harming herself. The rest of the scenario unfolds like a nightmare straight out of Kafka: Sawyer is prevented from leaving, is led to a room (door locked behind her), is asked to undress, is patiently indulged as she demands to call the police, is forced to watch helplessly as police arrive only to be shown a document she herself has unwittingly signed--stating that she 'voluntarily' committed herself to this institution for a day. A week, since she has just 'violently assaulted' a staff member.  

The rest of the film unreels on that chillingly plausible premise (so plausible I'm unsure I want to unburden myself to any counselor ever again): we see the efficiency with which orderlies and nurses handle her understandable if unproductive frustration; we see the ward itself--hallways painted a combination deadpan cream (To calm agitated clients?) and dark green (To hide scuff marks and smeared bodily fluids?). We see pills in cups and shock electrodes and padded rooms monitored by close-circuit cameras. We see patients suffering various conditions, from mild (the humane Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah, terrific) who gives Sawyer a quick tour of the place and lends her his contraband cellphone when no one's looking) to severe (unsociable Violet (Juno Temple) who threatens Sawyer with a sharpened spoon hidden in her waistband).

Nate gives Sawyer and us the film's single most memorable moment, quietly presented as if unimportant: that Sawyer is here as the result of a scam where the ward bills her health insurance until the money runs out, whereupon she'll be declared 'sane' and released. Involuntary commitment to milk your insurance? The idea is so horrifying--yet so unsettlingly possible--it should send audiences shrieking from the theaters (if they know what's good for them). Such a scheme has not been unheard of before, though it involved juvenile placement and not a mental ward (a judge meting out harsher sentences to youths in exchange for kickbacks--the Kids for Cash scandal).

That's the high point for me, though the rest of the picture in Soderbergh's hands is not unentertaining. Sawyer thinks a new employee named David (Joshua Leonard) is a stalker who has followed her from her home town; Sawyer's mother Angela (Amy Irving, also terrific) turns up to help her incarcerated daughter. Soderbergh raises the stakes--now it's an issue of whether or not Sawyer's really being stalked or it's all in her doped-up head--though the script (by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer) is unable to pose the Is She or Isn't She? question for very long (about less than half the picture's running time) before dumping it for more unambiguous issues. Worse the film takes major leaps and somersaults in logic and doesn't always land on its feet (Skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the film!). How could David have tracked Sawyer down--and why should she have been committed about the same time? Why does Angela open her hotel room door to David without calling the front desk? Why would David allow Sawyer to talk him into leaving her at a crucial moment to look for another girl to rape first? The leaps are not entirely unexplained (David's just that smart; Angela is just that dumb; Sawyer is just that smooth a talker--though she has to count on David choosing Violet out of all the patients in the ward with her hidden sharpened spoon) but Soderbergh is such a sober intelligent filmmaker your brain can't help working overtime, noting all the unlikely twists. To have properly pulled this off Soderbergh should have gone crazier, done a De Palma and doused the screen with style style and more style*--difficult to do considering he's shooting on an iPhone 7 Plus.

*(Come to think of it we already have such a film--Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor, from which Soderbergh borrows freely)

O did I forget to mention? The whole movie's shot on an iPhone. Not entirely unprecedented; Sean Baker shot Tangerine on an iPhone 5 back in 2015. Where Baker adjusted his color for a more garish palette (to complement the equally garish language and clothes of transgendered sex workers) Soderbergh opts for a more understated--some might say underilluminated--look, to match the uneasy claustrophobic air of the ward. Which helps perhaps to demarcate the iPhone's territory in the realm of cinema: as an unexpensive way of capturing urban grunge, of creating unfriendly spaces for unholy killers to stalk through.

Unsane is a clever if underdeveloped little thriller, unimpressive till you put it in its place in Soderbergh's ever-expanding ever-morphing oeuvre: from the epically entertaining Ocean movies to science fiction efforts like his Solaris remake and Contagion to biopics like Kafka and Che to small scale productions like Logan Lucky and Magic Mike to more experimental fare like Full Frontal and the narratively uncanny Schizopolis--I've only scratched the surface of the guy's career, and have yet to mention his TV work. He's prolific and inventive in his own unassuming way, always pushing himself to do something unusual, often on an undersized budget; case in point, this film. Are his features so interesting? Unfailingly so. Will I catch the next one? Undoubtedly. 

First published in Businessworld 7.13.18

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