On mirrors and reflections, Soderberghian surveillance, and meekness as the ultimate masking agent
Unsane Bleecker Street Media
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Polly McKie and Amy Irving
Rated R / 1 hour, 37 minutes / 1.56:1
March 23, 2018
(out of four)
Before Sawyer Valentini has found herself committed to a psychiatric ward against her will, before she comes face to face with the stalker who followed her there, before she discovers that no one in the hospital will believe her, before she comes to question her own sanity ... before any of that, Steven Soderbergh has already trapped her in a hall of mirrors, held her under surveillance, disoriented her state of mind without her even realizing. It was practically a fait accompli, her winding up there. The act of accidentally signing over her freedom was simply the coup de grace.
The opening scenes of Unsane nimbly orchestrate the setting for a psychological thriller before it has officially become one. We meet Sawyer - a successful, single, young professional in the banking industry - in the fading shadow of a situation she'd rather forget, one that forced her to bolt to a new city. The stalker - clingy, desperate, obstinately presumptuous David Strine - is safely back in Boston, unaware (presumably) of his target's new whereabouts. Sawyer (Claire Foy) still tends to look over her shoulder, but she's trying not to. She's trying to move on, trying to ignore it, but Soderbergh won't let her forget so easily. Subliminally, at least, the threat lingers.
Ostensibly everything is normal. Work meetings, lunch breaks, phone calls with Mom. But Soderbergh works his iPhone - wide-angle lenses warping the 1.56:1* frame - against her. He stages a phone call mid-drive for the apparent purpose of surrounding her with various reflections of her own visage, each angle competing with the next in something of a Sawyer Valentini mosaic. The LCD screen of her phone reflecting clearly back at her in the sunlight, with the rear- and side-view mirrors peering in and the real (more or less) Sawyer stationed between them all. It's a simple enough idea, but crafted with a particularly aggressive tenor.
* With the slow adoption of the iPhone as a viable shooting format, I've been curious about how, and how much, its use would vary from one film to another. In terms of aspect ratios - a largely trivial point, granted - there's been no standard, at least among the major filmmakers who've used the format. Sean Baker's Tangerine was presented in scope; before that, short films by Chan-wook Park (Night Fishing) and Michel Gondry (Détour) were in 1.78; and now Soderbergh's Unsane goes with the much more uncommon 1.56.
Her phone calls continue elsewhere - outside on a park bench, with Sawyer pushed to the far side of the frame. When she walks through the office park, we cut to a wide shot, greenery in the foreground, suggesting - or maybe even outright establishing - that she's being watched. That sense permeates her still-unrepaired social life. When she brings home a guy she met on Tinder - making the fact that she wants nothing more than a one-night stand explicitly clear - the evening comes to an abrupt end when her date's reflection suddenly appears as that of her stalker. She thought she saw him earlier in the day, too ... that bearded guy she saw walking through the bank from afar. But nah, couldn't be him.
Again, this is a simple and common enough tack, but the emphasis on reflective surfaces here is applied with acute precision - and appropriately so, for a film ultimately about the contradictory ways we see ourselves and others. And not just in the literal sense, but more significantly in the way people interpret behavior, read and misread signals, manufacture meanings and intentions. Characters in Unsane, even when - especially when - they're in face-to-face conversation, rarely get through to each other. Often that lack of understanding is at least a somewhat conscious choice - like David bending himself into mental knots trying to convince both himself and Sawyer that they're meant to be together, that her feelings toward him are different from what she (and we, and somewhere in his mind, he) knows them to be, that if only, and but wait, and if you'd just.
The lingering haunts of her experience with David - whom she met while working for Hospice; he took her simple kindness toward him during his time of grief as an indication of something much more serious, like "let's be together forever" serious - lead her to the counseling center, where she just wants to talk to someone and get a few things off her chest. This leads to signed paperwork that she does not read, having been told it's simply routine. Which leads to her involuntarily voluntary commitment to the facility. When she objects, the doctors and nurses are unfazed; they hear the "I'm not crazy, I'm not supposed to be here" speech all the time. The cops, too.
That she's told this is just a 24-hour observation period (with good behavior), after which she'll be free to go, is a cruel tease. Her discovery of David's inexplicable presence on staff makes good behavior impossible, let alone behavior that makes her appear sane. After all, that orderly she's complaining about? His name isn't David Strine, and he's been on staff for months. That 24-hour period becomes a mandatory one-week stay. And that one week ... well, the end of it just keeps feeling like it's further and further away.
Her time locked up is a series of hopes and provocations. She finds a friend in Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), who shows her the ropes and lets her in on a secret about this place that may or may not be conspiratorial nonsense. More importantly, he lets her borrow his (illegally smuggled-in) phone whenever they can sneak away out of sight. Sawyer calls her Mom (Amy Irving), who comes to town adamant about getting her daughter out. But the comfort of having Nate around (and Mom at least proximal) is answered by the presence of fellow patient Violet (Juno Temple), a braided blonde who most definitely belongs there in the psych ward. Violent tendencies, you understand. And that's to say nothing of David - or whatever he's calling himself these days - not only roaming around under the protection of the facility itself but specifically being put in charge of issuing Sawyer's meds.
Joshua Leonard's performance as David is sort of like a Will Forte character without the charisma or charm; David seems to get by on the presumption of harmlessness, with the sensitivity in his voice and his passive demeanor hiding the delusional malevolence Sawyer can see so clearly, but that's so invisible to everyone else.
The paranoid sensibilities Soderbergh has honed with the likes of Side Effects, Contagion and The Good German takes a pretty fascinating new turn with Unsane - and once things are really in motion, it must be said, this movie absolutely does not eff around. Soderbergh knows how to pay off dark impulses and twisted psychology. The prolific filmmaker is a fan of Adrian Lyne (Jacob's Ladder) - known for erotic thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful - and it seems he's taken cues from Lyne's work in his recent thrillers. In Unsane, Soderbergh uses some of those same impulses to fashion something of an antierotic thriller: instead of a mutual affair or liaison being taken too far or spinning lives into crisis, here we have a one-sided attraction being threateningly imposed on an unwilling participant. Even the sexuality of that attraction is something of an abstraction. (One key detail is a wry comment on that very thing.)
I wouldn't say Unsane is a visually attractive film, per se, but it's a visually effective, deliberate and meaningful one. The camera is Sawyer's tormentor and confidante, her sanity and her doubt, her damaged but resilient state of mind.