With the word “gaslighting” getting thrown around a lot in our current age of fake-news awareness, to the point where some use it simply as a heated synonym for “lying,” along comes “Unsane” to remind us of its more elaborately melodramatic origins. It’s tempting to call Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot psychothriller a “Gaslight” riff uncannily timed to the #MeToo revision of gender politics, though that risks giving undue gravitas to what was plainly, and effectively, conceived as a quick-and-dirty genre romp, scripted, shot and cut with itchy, unpretty zeal — and performed with image-altering gusto by Claire Foy, as a strung-out businesswoman involuntarily committed to a suspect mental institution where the male architect of her fear may or may not be roaming the halls. We’re in schlock corridor here and Soderbergh runs with it, cellphone in hand; under the buzzing suspense mechanics, however, a cautionary note on the perils of disbelieving women is just audible.
Alongside its more disposable virtues, “Unsane” serves as an interesting case study for the ever-expanding possibilities of smartphones in cinema, not least because its grimy aesthetic and breath-on-your-face atmosphere couldn’t be further removed from the iridescent visual poetry of Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” — the first major title handed the “iPhone movie” label. As wielded by Soderbergh (or his cinematographer alias Peter Andrews, if we must be formal about it), the device foreshortens space and tightens perspective in ways that feel aptly constrictive in a story hinging on one woman’s paranoia. If the limitations of the technology reveal themselves when the film reaches for bigger, movie-movie set pieces in its third act, “Unsane” nonetheless represents an intriguing fusion of two Soderberghs: the curious indie experimentalist behind “Bubble” and the lithe, witty studio craftsman who emerged from premature retirement last year with “Logan Lucky,” both battling for dominance throughout.
The director’s more avant-garde sensibility rules at the start, as “Unsane” opens with a disquieting male voiceover over what appears to be a grainy night-vision landscape, musing tenderly on the object of his affection. In time, we understand these to be the dulcet tones of David, the stalker who obsessively monitored Sawyer Valentini (Foy), a brusque, high-flying data analyst, for an extended period of time, ultimately driving her from her Boston home and nearly out of her mind. She’s introduced in the process of rebuilding her life over in Pennsylvania, still guarded and scarred by trauma. Away from the office, where she’s out to make few friends, her social routine doesn’t extend past calls to her fretful mom (Amy Irving) and no-strings Tinder hookups — though those can still trigger paralyzing flashes of David’s presence.
Seeking peace of mind, she enrolls for therapy sessions at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center, though after a promisingly sympathetic consultation, she swiftly finds she’s been duped into committing herself. Summarily bundled into a bleak psychiatric ward with terrifying, tampon-throwing lunatic livewire Violet (who else but Juno Temple?) and the more rational, collaborative Nate (a wonderful Jay Pharoah) as her bed neighbors, she exasperatedly finds herself unable to speak up for her sanity without sounding as deranged as any of them. Credit production designer April Lasky for making the institution’s dim, peeling corridors and cells — shot by Soderbergh in smudgy, jaundiced tones, as if his iPhone was rescued from a deep-fat fryer — both plausibly banal and nightmarish enough to connote an addled, fevered mind.
Sawyer, then, already smells gas before she makes the discovery that David, in the guise of mild-mannered nurse George (Joshua Leonard), is employed as a nurse on her ward, serving her medication with a soothing smile. Or is he? Have her delusional flashes been set into overdrive? And who would believe her either way? That’s as much as can be disclosed from the nasty, well-knotted script by James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein (upping their game slightly from the Jackie Chan vehicle “The Spy Next Door”), before proceedings tumble into a writhing snake pit of melodramatic reversals and vintage B-movie jolts — some chilly, some silly, but all held together with defiant, dug-in credibility by Foy.
Raising her big-screen stock considerably from last year’s soggy showcase in “Breathe,” the British actress doesn’t softly edge around the ways in which Sawyer herself can be a jagged little pill, while the script serves ample evidence of how personal and professional relations with men have made her armor up over the years; even Foy’s candid expressions of terror come with a terse, practical edge. (For those who were puzzled when the queenly star of TV’s “The Crown” was tapped for an upcoming Lisbeth Salander reboot, consider “Unsane” her aced audition tape.)
It’s a sharp, sandpapery characterization in a film that otherwise doesn’t go in for overly complex analysis, particularly in a finale geared primarily toward placing panicked hearts in mouths, and generally letting the head slide a bit. It’d be as much of a stretch as some of its loonier plot contrivances to call “Unsane” a feminist film, but it’s knowing trash with some abrasive social texture — some of it written in, some of it lent by the world into which it’s being released.
Soderbergh, for his part, seems content to let any subtext sort itself out while he plays around with the execution, and the delight he takes in the style-loosening possibilities of a camera-phone is palpable. No one would call this the best filmmaking of his unpredictable career, but there’s a carelessness to the film’s snappy, on-the-fly shooting and editing that, at its best points, lucks into something carefree. “Think of your cellphone as your enemy,” a security consultant (played with dorky relish by an uncredited Soderbergh regular) warns Sawyer in the film’s most winkingly ironic line; Soderbergh treats his more like a buddy, and “Unsane” reaps the casual benefits.