Claire Foy Holds Together a Faulty Soderbergh Experiment in ‘Unsane’

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(2018—Director: Steven Soderbergh)

—by Renard N. Bansale —

(out of 5 stars)

“There’s some more forms you need to fill out; it’s just routine.” — Highland Creek Counselor (Myra Lucretia Taylor) to Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy)

 Potential spoilers below

August 2017’s Logan Lucky marked the return of Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh after a four-year hiatus. At first it underwhelmed that the comedic heist lacked the gas to make a splash during awards season (in which it made no appearance). Logan Lucky did end up winning me over via subsequent re-watches as one of 2017’s most rollicking cinematic thrills (not to mention the source of my favorite trailer for a 2017 release).

In the months after Logan Lucky’s release, promotion for Soderbergh’s next movie, a psychological thriller which he shot in secret right after finishing his heist comedy, began to reach audiences. Soderbergh’s technical constraint for his psychological thriller, titled Unsane (from Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s original screenplay), was to shoot it in 4K using an iPhone 7 Plus. This tactic can inspire low budget filmmakers to capture more with less and to set a paranoid tone. That said, it does not shield much of Unsane’s runtime from appearing cheap and amateurish, despite Claire Foy’s determined lead performance.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) relocates from Boston to Philadelphia to avoid a man (Joshua Leonard) who has been stalking her for the past two years. Though hardworking and eager to ascend in her career, Sawyer still senses her stalker watching her and she seems to catch glimpses of him wherever she goes. She decides to seek treatment at the nearby Highland Creek Behavioral Center. During Sawyer’s promising visit, however, she overlooks the paperwork the employees have her sign and she voluntarily commits to a 24-hour stay, extended to a full week due to Sawyer’s accidental but nonetheless violent protests. Worse yet, she discovers that her stalker has assumed a new identity and now works at Highland Creek.

Surviving the week has now become more challenging.

From about the film’s third shot onwards, the limitations of the iPhone 7 Plus shooting format set in. I had hoped such a constraint would give Unsane a unique charm; instead, it becomes an obnoxious hindrance at times. Objects in the frame have bizarre size relationships with each other and the colors become off-putting and imbalanced, never hitting a sweet spot. The editing, in its hit-or-miss attempts to provide a surveillance, CCTV-esque feel to the film, more often comes off like a student filmmaker trying too hard to show that they had shot plenty of coverage.

Fortunately, Claire Foy’s lead performance as Sawyer stands out in Unsane. Ms. Foy resists faltering to the imperfections of Unsane’s experimental visuals and sticks to conveying Sawyer’s paranoia and rebellion. Her character’s response to the bizarre injustice in which she finds herself makes the viewing experience of Unsane halfway tolerable.

Still, despite Ms. Foy’s anchored acting and Soderbergh and co.’s best intentions, Unsane amounts to an unpolished story whose scale stretches beyond the technical limitations. Bernstein and Greer’s script presents itself from the start as a stalker thriller, but one can forget that subgenre label once Highland Creek has Sawyer in its grasp. It takes some time for the stalker element to re-emerge and once it does, it has to share space with a feeble insurance scam element that deserves a more spacious movie. Unsane lacks the wherewithal to promote both plot developments. Once Soderbergh’s movie picks one conceit over the other, the decision naturally robs the other conceit of whatever mystery, thrills, and general intrigue it had.

Even though Soderbergh has cemented a strong reputation across his three decades as a filmmaker, that does not make him impervious whenever his experimental side gets the better of him. Sure, one can admire any artist who shows a willingness to embrace new technology. At the same time, however, one should exercise patience until the technology has advanced to deliver a level of quality much greater than that of lackluster and forgettable trials like Unsane. As Soderbergh prepares for his next movie, the sports drama High Flying Bird, I hope he keeps that lesson in mind for the future.

(Parental Note: Unsane has been rated R by the MPAA “for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong violence, threat,” and “language”, and rated L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for containing “mature themes, a scene of attempted sexual assault, physical violence, some sexual references, and frequent rough language.”)


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature-film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard is currently pursuing his M.A. in Biblical Theology (Catechetical track) at JPCatholic after graduating from the school in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting).

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