You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Unsane’

Steven Soderbergh embraces the freeing possibilities of both the iPhone and the B-movie in this pulpy psychothriller, lent some grit by Claire Foy.

Steven Soderbergh
Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah
Release Date:
Feb 23, 2018

Rated R  1 hour 38 minutes

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.

Film Review: 'Unsane'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Out of Competition), Feb. 20, 2018. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: A Bleecker Street release of a Regency Enterprises, Fingerprint Releasing presentation of a New Regency, Extension 765 production. Producer: Joseph Malloch. Executive producers: Ken Meyer, Arnon Milchan, Dan Fellman. Co-producer: Corey Bayes. Co-executive producer: Joseph Reidy.

Crew: Director: Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer. Camera (color, HD): Peter Andrews. Editor: Mary Ann Bernard.

With: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irvine, Polly McKie, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Gibson Frazier, Aimee Mullins.

More Film

  • Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp Join Edgar

    Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp Join Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” has rounded out its cast, with veteran actors Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp among the stars signing on for the latest movie from the “Baby Driver” director. Stamp can currently be seen in Netflix hit “Murder Mystery” with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. Rigg’s recent roles include Olenna Tyrell [...]

  • Zhang Zhao LeEco film

    Zhang Zhao, Chief of Le Chuang (Formerly Le Vision Pictures), Resigns

    Zhang Zhao, the chairman and CEO of Le Chuang Entertainment, formerly known as Le Vision Pictures, has resigned for “personal reasons,” the firm said.    Zhang’s resignation was announced in a statement posted to the firm’s official social media account Monday, which thanked him for his service. “Le Chuang will carry on as before, using [...]

  • Bob Berney

    Bob Berney to Leave Amazon Studios' Head of Marketing and Distribution Position

    Bob Berney, Amazon Studios’ head of marketing and distribution, is stepping down, Variety has confirmed. Berney was hired by Amazon in 2015 and recently reached the end of his four-year contract. His last day will be Friday. During his time at amazon, the film veteran oversaw a number of successful films including “Manchester by the [...]

  • NEW YORK, NY – JUNE, 24:

    LGBTQ Stars Honored at Variety’s Power of Pride Celebration

    New York City felt the full power of pride on Monday, as Variety celebrated its inaugural issue devoted to the annual recognition of LGBTQ people worldwide. At an intimate gathering at lower east side Manhattan hotel The Orchid, rooftop bar Mr. Purple hosted Variety’s cover stars and luminaries for cocktails and the unveiling of the [...]

  • Joel Silver Exits Silver Pictures

    Joel Silver Exits Silver Pictures

    Top Hollywood producer Joel Silver has exited his production company Silver Pictures, Variety has confirmed. “Joel Silver recently indicated that he intends to leave Silver Pictures and go out on his own,” Hal Sadoff, a former ICM Partners agent who joined Silver Pictures several years ago as CEO, said in a statement. “We are working [...]

  • Billy Eichner Power of Pride Variety

    Billy Eichner on Taylor Swift's 'Calm Down' Backlash

    When Taylor Swift released her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, it seemed like every member of the LGBTQ in Hollywood was included — except for Billy Eichner. “I’m still not gay enough for Taylor Swift — or too gay — I don’t know what it is,” Eichner joked at Variety’s Power of Pride [...]

  • Ewen Bremner as Alan McGee in

    Danny Boyle-Produced ‘Creation Stories’ Adds Jason Isaacs, Steven Berkoff

    Jason Isaacs, Steven Berkoff and a host of other new names have signed on for “Creation Stories,” the film being exec-produced by Danny Boyle about Creation Records co-founder Alan McGee. The producers also unveiled the first shots of Ewen Bremner (“Trainspotting”) as the music mogul. Production is underway on the Irvine Welsh-penned project, with “Lock, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content