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Review: Soderberghs trippy UNSANE a serviceable thriller

Courtesy of Bleecker Street


Two movies out of retirement and Steven Soderbergh seems right back at home. The critically adored indie director has a knack for the unconventional. Last summer's "Logan Lucky" was a test in marketing management as he bypassed traditional PR costs and sold off streaming rights to put his movie in the black before it was even released. His latest, a pulpy, effective, and, at times, predictable thriller "Unsane" presents a new narrative tactic: shooting on an IPhone. Now, the ideal dilemma is, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Directors have been shooting on traditional 35mm cameras for decades, but leave it to Soderberg to pave the way for something fresh.

Creating unsettling tension at every turn, with his close up framing shots, and shoddy lighting "Unsane" follows a bank manager named Sawyer Valentni (Claire Foy), who, for all we know, is just like me and you. At least, the opening fifteen minutes would have you think that (and this is where Soderberg does a fantastic job at utilizing his camera style.) We feel that something is wrong, almost constantly. So when the sad girl is sitting in an office detailing how she, at once, thought of committing suicide, the shrink quickly has her sign documents as a "precaution" and before we know it Sawyer has involuntarily checked herself into a mental institution. A metaphor on our current healthcare system today.

Once inside, Soderberg uses musical cues at just the right moments, introduces us to a slew of characters (the most interesting being Jay Pharaoh's Nate, who serves as kind've the institutions chaplain - he's also the smartest) and suddenly the walls feel like they're caving in. Sawyer isn't necessarily in need of treatment, but she's vulnerable. Mainly in part to a past stalker ("The Blair Witch Project" star Joshua Leonard in a creepy role) who may or may not be working in the same hospital. Is she delusional? Or is this reality? The answer is more conventional then you might think: somewhat disappointing considering the level that Soderberg often works at. 

I do love the aesthetic though, and Highland Creek (the name of the hospital) is an interesting place to spend time, with some of the nurses coming off as a cross between the ones from "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and Annie Wilkes from "Misery." Foy does give a believable American accent in the lead role, and even though we question her sanity multiple times. Foy does a steady job at keeping the balance, despite some of the final climatic minutes teetering on the edge of frustrating. 

The whole time you might find yourself waiting for a last second twist to guide you along (remember Soderberg's loopy "Side Effects?") - but it never comes. Instead, "Unsane" takes the easy way out, taking on a more convenient path where a curveball or two might've been welcomed. It does help that Leonard is completely stoic and just strange, his eyes alone will make you cringe.

"Unsane" will likely be remembered for it's narrative style (I didn't hate that the film was shot on an IPhone) - but it won't be remembered for its mechanics. The film is a serviceable thriller, but they're many serviceable thrillers, and aside from a quick drive by cameo, there aren't many surprises. I suppose that's a testament to the direction of Soderberg, that even when his films are less than exciting, he still manages to win you over in some capacity.

Grade: B

Rated R for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sexual references

Runtime: 1 hr. and 38 minutes

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