Now that Steven Soderbergh is back to making movies at his usual peerless clip after a short-yet-too-long four-year break, he’s picking up very much where he left off. Last summer’s Logan Lucky was like a sweeter Ocean’s 11 led by his pre-retirement muse Channing Tatum, and now his brand-new, iPhone-shot feature Unsane is very much a companion piece to Side Effects (which also featured Tatum, alongside Rooney Mara, Jude Law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones). Soderbergh is once again rooting a psychological thriller in a modern fears about medicine and mental health, following Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) as she seeks help for residual fears after a stalking incident, and finds herself committed against her will to a mental hospital – where she starts to seeing a face she swears belongs to her old stalker (Joshua Leonard).
A major difference between Unsane and some of Soderbergh’s other female-centric genre experiments is that Foy is a professional actress. That’s not a knock against The Girlfriend Experience’s Sasha Gray or Haywire’s Gina Carano; Soderbergh knew what he was doing, casting an adult film performer and martial artist, respectively, at the center of two movies. Though neither woman was experienced in traditional film performing, they both seemed to match Soderbergh’s preferred later-period female character: Calculating but lacking affect, professional but somewhat opaque, and uninterested in charming the audience like the lead of a romantic comedy (something so many movies, rom-com or not, expect from its female leads).
Foy has a different style than either Gray or Carano; she’s more verbal, and playing a more recognizable type—the beleaguered career woman, itself an easy match for both rom-coms and this kind of unnerving thriller. What she has in common with other recent heroines is a lack of concern for easy likability, which is not to say that she can’t generate empathy. Quite to the contrary; Soderbergh trusts that she can even if Sawyer is something of a brusque, prickly loner. We see her early on snapping at a customer on the phone at work, eating lunch alone, and cutting short a conversation with her mom. Foy, using an American accent that makes her sound a bit like Helena Bonham Carter’s clipped version of the same, is particularly brilliant at showing moments where a naturally prickly personality attempts to undercut herself with self-conscious humor (“I finished my homework,” Sawyer says upon turning in some insurance paperwork at the hospital, not attempting to charm the administrator so much as failing to mask her low-key irritation). If Haywire and The Girlfriend Experience were about women controlling and commodifying their bodies, Unsane gives us a woman putting clear, obvious (and recognizable!) labor into a façade of “normal” behavior.
Soderbergh doesn’t turn this into caricature. He provides plenty of reasons to feel for Sawyer and admire her resolve, her perseverance in living in the world: A clear sense of paranoia over the stalker episode that caused her to change cities. A boss making vaguely creepy overtures. And, finally, a mental health facility that takes advantage of her hurry and her barely-together politeness to prod her into a voluntary commitment. It’s there that she starts seeing her stalker, and though we’re invited to doubt her clarity for a time – especially when Soderbergh breaks out some trippy yet lo-fi camera tricks – Sawyer never seems to fully doubt herself. The possible gaslighting has more direct effect on the audience than on its heroine.
That’s not to say it doesn’t take its toll on poor Sawyer, who gets put through a horror-thriller wringer. Like Side Effects, this is one of Soderbergh’s more genre-y genre experiments, and pivots from addressing social ills about the profits of mental health facilities to more outlandish concerns with an ease that might strike some as exploitation. It might, in fact, be exploitative; the movie is more interesting because it walks that line. The iPhone imagery doesn’t employ Soderbergh’s beloved sickly yellow tones, but it does look both sickly and yellow-ish – more like a low-light beige, confined by his boxy aspect ratio. He’s a digital loyalist, now weirdly narrowed down to the iPhone, but the effect often makes the crisply assembled movie look grainy and sometimes even a little grody, like an old print running on an imperfect projector (so basically, yes, I’m giving Soderbergh a pass on an effect that might irritate me if it was happening because of a projection or other presentation issue).
In other words, the sometimes antiseptic Soderbergh is performing a kind of formal digital mucking up of his exacting compositions, turning Unsane into a double-ex: experimental exploitation. Side Effects played that game, too, but Foy gives Unsane more weight than that enjoyable erotic-thriller procedural, unable to keep her head down and play a maddening game for her captors (a major difference from Soderbergh’s effectively affectless non-actors). She conveys that Sawyer wants to be left alone, and now has to fight her way back to a normal, slightly brusque and prickly life. And once again Soderbergh observes and respects a certain kind of remote heroine, trying to leverage her savvy into survival.