This prickly thriller is an unsafe bet

Unsane is an unsafe bet. The ‘safe bet’ is the norm in today’s American film industry, with reliance on huge investment and huge return guaranteed with the ‘tune in next year’ approach of modern blockbusters. Director Steven Soderbergh’s movie isn’t obviously intended to rank with anything currently Hulk-smashing its way through multiplexes, but Soderbergh used to make the movies that did. He helmed Ocean’s Eleven (2002) (and Twelve and Thirteen), a massive hit and cultural phenomenon that made him a household name, before he disappeared from filmmaking, fed up with the entire business.

When Soderbergh came back, he returned with the pretty good, modest flop Logan Lucky (2017), but Unsane plays like—modern movie industry be damned—Soderbergh returning to his experimental, weird and abrasive roots. Back in 1990, the director put the Sundance Film Festival on the map with his sex-obsessed drama Sex, Lies and Videotape, a movie that gave way to an independent film revolution that, thanks to Harvey Weinstein’s gargantuan ego, was swallowed up by the studio that pioneered it.

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Shot using iPhones, a move the director insists was artistically-minded and not budgetary, Unsane immediately looks like a movie you shouldn’t be allowed to see on the big screen. It’s grainy, the camera shots are often leery and peaking out from the bushes and its lead, Claire Foy, is hardly recognisable as Sawyer Valentini. She looks stressed and underslept, jittery and irritable under the phone’s intimate camera lens.

Sawyer has moved some 600 kilometres away from home because of a job opportunity she couldn’t pass up. This is just after we’ve seen her in her crummy cubicle, mouthing off at a customer on the phone, before sharing a terse exchange with her co-worker who genuinely looks like she wants to be Sawyer’s friend. But no, she assures her mum on the phone, this is good for her and, ‘You know I’ve always been impulsive’.

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Some of the dialogue in Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay is cringey and unnatural, like when she meets a guy for a Tinder date (Colin Woodell). Sawyer and Mark share some awkward first-Tinder-date banter. She gets his name wrong before assuring him, ‘This is going to go exactly how you want it to go’. There’s a lot of forced, matter of fact dialogue throughout the movie that fits its hurried first act, where the main conceit of the plot rushes in probably earlier than you’ll expect.

Foy is such a controlled performer, she never lets the pulpy dialogue sound silly, while Soderberg’s measured direction makes a rushed plot feel unsettling and perfectly paced. We eventually learn (through the expository shortcut of a Google search) that Sawyer is a victim of stalking. She seeks a counselling session and lets on, a little too explicitly, that she has suicidal thoughts. In a sequence that’s at once brilliantly matter-of-fact and ludicrously unlikely, Sawyer is led through the annals of the hospital, her personal belongings confiscated and into a public ward for an overnight stay.

There are allusions to Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), in which a journalist feigns insanity to follow a story in a mental institution, but I was thinking about schlocky horror movies from the 80s like the absurdly twisted The Stepfather (1988) or Brian DePalma’s Body Double (1985) for its surreal turns of events and unashamed voyeurism. The charm of these movies is in their illogical plots, because the filmmakers don’t try to convince you any of this could really be happening, or should be taken as works of realism—they just happen to take place in a world that resembles ours.

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Sawyer meets the cranked up and aggressive Violet, played by Juno Temple, who’s all dreadlocks and a comically maniacal southern accent. Temple’s performance is gleefully macabre, as she performs lines like ‘I’m gonna cut your hair off while you sleep’, knowing hers is a character that could only exist in the dystopian institution Soderbergh and co. have created.

The twists and turns are better left unsaid. These kinds of movies, which we see less and less of on the big screen, make decisions designed to get the audiences to sit up in their seats. There’s an extended sequence towards the end in a blue isolation cell that completely alters the tone of the movie, assuring audiences they’re not supposed to know where this is going. It’s likely a movie that will simply come and go, but the people who share the experience in the theatre will gladly remember it.

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