Director Steven Soderbergh has a certain knack for mixing sophistication and pulpy thrills. He may have won an Oscar for his work on Traffic, but for this writer, his direction’s more lively when he turns his hand to something like Ocean’s Eleven, the underrated Solaris or even Magic Mike. His unexpected foray into action territory with Haywire was as slick as it was violent; Side Effects started as a thought-provoking comment on Big Pharma before morphing into a twisty thriller.
Unsane, although shot on mobile phones and lacking the production gloss of Side Effects, could be seen as a companion piece. Its premise takes in medical insurance companies and otherwise healthy people being sectioned for spurious reasons; then Soderbergh flips a switch, and events take an intense and increasingly dark turn.
Claire Foy, with an impeccable American accent (at least to our ear), plays Sawyer, a career-minded young woman who’s recently moved to a new city and secured a promising job at an apparently prestigious company. All the same, unpleasant memories of a stalker still linger, and in her depression, Sawyer goes to see a counsellor, signs a consent form – and promptly finds herself detained in a mental hospital.
Soderbergh’s use of iPhones gives Unsane an uneasy, voyeuristic feel: the high-definition tech means that grain is largely absent from the image, but the lenses give our perspective a compressed, almost fish-eye perspective where background details are constantly in focus. This comes in particularly handy when the plot takes a turn for the Kafkaesque: Sawyer can’t figure out why she’s being force-fed pills and slung into a busy ward; and then she begins to insist that one of the hospital’s orderlies is none other than her old stalker.
Unsane’s premise is fairly run-of-the-mill, but Soderbergh’s direction – somehow precise and borderline experimental at the same time – gives the film a gritty, dreamlike edge that a more polished film would’ve struggled to replicate. Sawyer offers a great workout for Claire Foy, too, and she adeptly portrays the character’s increasing fear and paranoia. In supporting roles you’ll find Juno Temple, almost unrecognisable with cornrow hair and a southern drawl as another patient; Amy Irving as Sawyer’s mother, and Joshua Leonard as the softly-spoken orderly who may or may not be the heroine’s nemesis.
It’s a simple, even modest film in some respects – certainly compared to the overblown stuff we’ve come to expect from modern cinema – but Soderbergh knows how to dial up the tension through unfussy yet impeccably mounted scenes. Standing in line for the day’s medication; waking up in a padded cell; even a simple action like slipping a hand tentatively under a pillow are mined for moments of creeping suspense.
A couple of decades ago, Unsane might have ended up as a mid-budget thriller starring Kim Basinger, say; it’s actually to the film’s benefit that it’s been given a digital, raw edge. Some aspects of the plot are fairly predictable, but thanks to the superb acting, and couple of gasp-worthy shocks in the second half, Unsane emerges as another impressive genre offering from Soderbergh. Anyone who’s seen enough genre movies will be able to predict some of the turns pulled off here; but like a good conjuring trick, it’s satisfying to watch the performance unfold, even if you know where the white rabbit’s hidden.
Unsane is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd March.