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Non-Review Review: Unsane

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Unsane is off the wall.

The movie simply should not work, by just about any conceivable measure. Unsane is at once a conspiracy thriller criticism of the hypercapitalist impulses of the American healthcare system and a self-aware trashy nineties psychothriller about a young professional woman who may or may not be dealing with a stalker, all shot on an iPhone. It is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Single White Female meets Tangerine. It is astounding that the film works as well as it does, that Unsane remains compelling and engaging even as it careens off the tracks.

A large part of this is down to a fantastic central performance by Claire Foy, who holds the thematically loopy and surreal adventure together through sheer force of will. Unsane subjects its protagonist to a cavalcade of horrors and twists, any one of which blatantly absurd upon even the most cursory of examinations. However, Foy anchors the film in a compelling and engaging central performance to manages to keep the audience both off-balance and sympathetic at the same time. It is a deft (and impressive) balancing act.

Similarly, writer and director Steven Soderbergh also deserves a great deal of credit for keeping Unsane from completely unspooling. For all the chaos and absurdity of the film, for all the tonal shifts and weird contrivances, for all the trashy genre tropes and gonzo plotting, it never feels like Unsane escapes its director. Soderbergh walks a fine line, producing a film that veers wildly and unpredictably, while also seeming to know exactly what it is doing. The result is bizarre, but engaging. It might be too much to describe Unsane as good, but it is good fun.

One of the more interesting recurring trends in Steven Soderbergh’s recent filmography has been a tendency to blend earnest criticisms of the hypercapitalist American healthcare system with the narrative framework of a nineties conspiracy thriller, resulting in three of Soderbergh’s most intriguing recent films: Contagion, Side Effects, Unsane. It is a curious combination of theme and form, more notable for the manner in which Soderbergh forces these two seemingly disparate elements to overlap in three otherwise very different films.

Of course, this is a very surreal combination. Soderbergh is one of the most ambitious and intriguing mainstream filmmakers working, in large part because of his commitment to following his ideas through to their conclusions with absolute and unwavering commitment. This cocktail of conspiracy thriller and healthcare critique is mixed in different ratios in each of three films, ensuring that Contagion, Side Effects and Unsane each have their own distinct flavours despite the similarity in their ingredients. The taste of Unsane is considerably sharper than that of Side Effects or Contagion.

In many respects, Unsane might be seen as a spiritual successor to Side Effects, even beyond these thematic underpinnings. Both Unsane and Side Effects are structured in the style of trashy nineties thrillers, as if adapted from pulpy airport paperbacks that never existed. In some respects, they hark back to the sort of films that major Hollywood studios rarely produce these days; films that are no more or less inherently sophisticated than the modern blockbuster crop, but driven by heightened (and absurd) premises which tap into more personal and intimate paranoias.

In form, Unsane evokes the sort of psychological thriller that became very popular in Hollywood in the early nineties. It feels of a piece with films like Sleeping with the Enemy or Fear or Kiss the Girls, or other films in which the female protagonist finds herself literally and metaphorically trapped. A lot of the film’s narrative elements echo these thrillers; a creepy climax in the woods shot through a colour filter, an emphasis on natural lighting to create a sense of unease, a shifting sense of reality and uncertainty running through the film.

Indeed, Soderbergh’s decision to film Unsane on an iPhone feels very much in keeping with this aesthetic. While producing a film on a mobile phone is undoubtedly a very modern twist on movie-making, the look and feel of Unsane harks back to the trashy texture of those eighties and nineties thrillers. The iPhone does not capture light in the same way that film does, nor does it offer resolution as clear as a high-definition digital camera. The footage in Unsane looks very rough-and-ready, with even the aspect ratio seeming “off.” It recalls the quality of VHS tape.

At the same time, Unsane is smarter than just a homage or pastiche to these forgettable psychothrillers. The movie feels like an older film in terms of style and tone, but its sensibility is decidedly more modern. Most obviously, Sawyer Valentini is not trapped by a psychopath, but by the bureaucratic horrors of the larger healthcare system. Unsane touches on the notion of healthcare companies effectively taking hostages, committing otherwise healthy individuals and ransoming them to their insurance companies.

The premise plays like social commentary, with the scam outlined in considerable depth by another resident of the psychiatric ward to which Sawyer finds herself committed. It plays like pitch-black comedy, in keeping with Soderbergh’s recurring fascination with systems that serve to entrap and consume people. Sawyer’s freedom is taken away from her with a single pen stroke – her own. With this in mind, it should be noted that Soderbergh’s early films include a biography of Franz Kafka. There are certainly shades of that to Sawyer’s plight.

The use of this set-up as the framing device for a trashy psychological thriller is certainly ambitious and dizzying, even if it creates a jarring tonal imbalance once the more conventional psychological thriller aspects of the film kick into high gear. This works quite well in the film’s second act, as the movie challenges its audience to figure out what is actually happening and what is actually real. It is a testament to Soderbergh that the climax of the film works as well as it does, cross-cutting between the trashy nineties thriller and the absurdist bureaucratic black comedy.

There is also something decidedly modern in how Unsane approaches the victimisation and marginalisation of Sawyer. Psychological thrillers have consistently threatened young female protagonists, and pushed these heroines to the very edge of sanity. However, many of the trashier examples of the form pay little attention to the broader cultural context of these threats, treating them as dramatic stakes rather than exploring how they may relate to the real-world experiences of female audiences.

Recent years have seen a shift in these narrative conventions, as part of a broader discourse around traditionally marginalised and oppressed voices. Get Out is perhaps the most obvious example of this, with the experience of a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s family translated as an unsettling horror film. Unsane is very firmly anchored in Sawyer’s experiences as a young woman who has been stalked and victimised, the film taking this aspect of her character seriously rather than treating it as exposition or plot justification.

There are plenty of small and telling examples, particularly in Claire Foy’s wonderful central performance. However, these small details tend to add up over the course of Unsane: the unease that Sawyer feels at the prospect of being alone with her boss on a business trip; her decision to leave home to go to a part of the country where she is completely alone; her failed attempt at a meaningless one-night stand with a complete stranger; the implication that Sawyer might actually have been slightly destabilised by her experiences, but cannot possibly acknowledge this without being labelled or dismissed.

Unsane is very much a psychological thriller that exists in the context of the #MeToo moment, to the point that it is effectively a psychological thriller about both the consequences of trauma and the horrors of gaslighting. Soderbergh is almost playful about incorporating Unsane into this cultural moment, never losing sight of the fact that this is a trashy thriller more than an earnest political statement. There is an extended cameo from Matt Damon, who proceeds to explain in considerably detail how women should deal with sexual harassment.

Unsane doesn’t quite gel. The film is built on plot twists and developments that make no sense outside the context of the film itself. There are several plot developments that fit very well within the framework of a nineties psychological thriller, but which make no sense in anything context. The movie’s central “twist” is perhaps the best example of this. It is necessary for the movie to have a second half, and the film commits wholeheartedly to the premise, but even when the film is racing along at top speed, it’s hard to accept the premise at face value. (The same is true of other smaller contrivances.)

Unsane works much better than it should, a testament to Soderbergh and to Foy. Unsane is effectively Side Effects on crack cocaine, which is an ambitious concept given how precariously Side Effects was balanced. Unsane is an outrageous thrill ride put together with enough skill and energy to sustain itself across its ninety-seven minute runtime. It starts falling apart long before it reaches the climax, but it holds itself together just well enough to make it across the finish line.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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