PRINT April 2018



Steven Soderbergh, Unsane, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 98 minutes. David Strine (Joshua Leonard) and Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy).

THE FIRST BUT PERHAPS NOT THE LAST Steven Soderbergh movie to get a theatrical release in 2018 is Unsane, which was shot on the iPhone 7 Plus with 4K capture and, of course, a kit of add-on lenses and stabilizers, with probably half the $1.2 million budget going to image-enhancing postproduction. As a result, the movie’s initial twenty minutes look exciting—like nothing you’ve quite seen before, certainly not like Sean Baker’s jittery, neon-hued, made-with-love-and-very-few-dollars iPhone 5s Tangerine (2015). By comparison, the nearly subliminal instability, slightly heightened color, and illicit, hidden-camera intimacy of Unsane, while barely deviating from low-budget-movie norms, efficiently express the psychological-horror narrative, in which a woman is terrorized by a stalker who may have pursued her into the psychiatric facility to which she has been mistakenly—or not—committed.

Unsane has other things going for it, among them a terrific performance by Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini, a financial analyst who believes she’s escaped the frighteningly obsessed creep following herby moving from Boston to Philadelphia, only to find herself alone in a strange city, doubting her sanity when he reappears. And like the best genre movies, Unsane is topical. Sawyer has more than one #MeToo tale to tell. In an early, precisely calibrated scene, she has a one-on-one with her boss, whose barely disguised eye movements convey exactly why he’s inviting her to accompany him to a conference while giving him deniability should she confront him about propositioning her. Soon after, Sawyer, who is determined to have a sex life and who refuses to admit to herself how much she’s been traumatized by her stalker, takes home a Tinder date, promising to give him a great time if he agrees never to contact her again. Behaving more aggressively than her desire could warrant, she locks lips with the bewildered guy only to collapse on the floor in a full-out panic attack. Foy is remarkably skilled at communicating flip-flopping emotions, and Soderbergh knows exactly where to place the camera to capture her unspoken turmoil and thus depict in excruciating detail a sexual experience familiar to many women, but not one I can remember seeing on-screen before.

Seeking help for her stalker-induced PTSD, Sawyer consults a therapist, whom I presume she found through her workplace health plan. In response to some unprofessional leading questions, the counselor dredges up some fanciful suicidal ideation, whereupon Sawyer is asked to fill out “routine” paperwork and discovers, too late, that she has voluntarily committed herself. (If nothing else, Unsane encourages you to read every last word of an agreement, even that regarding your iTunes update.) Sawyer is deprived of her clothes, her phone, and her ID, and dosed with antipsychotics. Guess who is handing out the pills? I don’t think I’m giving anything away by noting that Unsane is the third Soderbergh film to indict the health-care industry. It’s more of a throwaway than Contagion (2011) or Side Effects (2013), but it has landed, perhaps unexpectedly, right in the middle of the gun-control debate and casts a complicating light on what seems like the commonsense demand that people who have been institutionalized for mental-health problems should not be allowed to buy firearms. If you have a look at the online chatter about Unsane, it’s pretty evenly divided between discussions of iPhone moviemaking and the dangers of being unjustly committed, tossed out on the street when your insurance expires, and having to deal with the ramifications of your new psychiatric record.

If nothing else, Unsane encourages you to read every last word of an agreement, even that regarding your iTunes update.

Unsane is one of Soderbergh’s periodic experiments in making movies more quickly and cheaply by exploring new technology. He was one of the first A-list directors to employ video cameras for features. Full Frontal (2002), shot on a Canon XL1S, was dingy-looking, but it prepared the moviemaker, who for two decades has also been his own cinematographer and editor, for the ten-episode HBO series K Street (2003), a fiction-documentary hybrid about Washington lobbying that I wish someone would dig out and show today. HBO also backed Soderbergh’s thoroughly satisfying pop melodrama Behind the Candelabra (2013) and his recent foray into interactive narrative Mosaic (2017). The scripts for Mosaic and Unsane leave something to be desired, but in both cases Soderbergh—who is the most serious American narrative filmmaker to match the prolificity of Godard in the 1960s or Fassbinder during the thirteen years of his tragically brief career—was more interested in taking technology out for a spin than he was in making an important genre movie. The problem is that we are now awash in genre movies, few of them as scathing and revelatory as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Unsane is neither, but if it opens the way for Soderbergh and a bunch of less-bankable independent filmmakers to do with the iPhone what Stan Brakhage did with the 16-mm Bolex—i.e., turn movie-making into a studio art form—that’s more than enough.

Unsane is now playing in select theaters.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.