Steven Soderbergh has tackled many genres in his long and often pioneering filmmaking career, but oddly he’s never made a full-on horror movie (the excellent and frightening epidemic movie Contagion has come perhaps the closest until now). That all changes with Unsane, Soderbergh’s take on the ‘70s horror esthetic that he shot entirely on his iPhone. Using his phone as his camera has mixed results: the movie is unremittingly ugly to look at — all murky browns and grays — but the weirdly intimate nature of the phone’s images somehow make the story more personal.
The story Soderbergh has chosen to tell is that of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a young woman who has relocated from Boston to Pennsylvania to start her life over after being traumatized for two years by a stalker. Realizing that she’s still suffering psychologically, she goes to see a therapist at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center — and soon finds herself a patient inside the facility after she inadvertently signs herself up for a voluntary 24-hour commitment — a stretch that soon turns to a week, if not more.
Unable to leave on her own, Sawyer is befriended by a recovering opioid addict named Nate (Jay Pharaoh) who helps her understand why she is there and how she can ride out her stay. But Sawyer’s plans are disrupted by the appearance of a night orderly named George Shaw (Joshua Leonard), who she is convinced is the same man — under an assumed identity — who terrorized her back in Boston and has somehow followed her to Highland Creek.
To say anymore would give up the twists and turns of the story (which was scripted by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer), but the basic set-up is one that is probably familiar to horror fans: the young person (most often a woman) who may or may not be mentally ill and is forced to reckon with that in extreme circumstances. Soderbergh plays with those tropes, at least at first, making Sawyer resilient and savvy instead of the helpless fawn we’ve seen so many times before, while also subtly commenting on society’s own ingrained sexist attitudes about “crazy” women (i.e. any woman who forthrightly states what she wants and goes after it).
The plot also pokes at ripped-from-the-headlines cultural relevance as well, making its ties to the socially conscious horror of the ‘70s even more pronounced. But rather than fully exploring the idea it sets up, Unsane veers in its third act into more standard horror territory and the story begins to fray from all the holes that appear as a result. Soderbergh is too good a filmmaker to let things fall apart completely and is still able to wring suspense out of the scenario, but a certain inevitability creeps into the movie during its final half hour that dulls its earlier edge.
Foy is terrific throughout, the complete opposite in many ways of the hapless female victim that is the bog standard of so many genre entries, while Pharaoh is an appealing ally who also doesn’t give into the usual clichés. Leonard — “Josh” in The Blair Witch Project nearly 20 years ago! — is also quite compelling in a tricky role, and it’s nice to see Amy Irving (Carrie) in action as Sawyer’s determined mother. The movie’s opening gambit is its best — there’s a certain surreal nature to the course of action that lands Sawyer in the hospital that feels both horrifying and also eerily plausible.
As for Soderbergh, he’s the star presence in the background as usual, and you can almost see him smiling as he applies his dry, cool approach to filmmaking to this often most high-strung and shrieking of film genres. Although I thought I’d be put off completely by watching the movie through an iPhone lens — I grew up on the ornate, lush horrors of Hammer and Mario Bava — the dulled images somehow end up reflecting the state of Sawyer’s mind fairly effectively. Unsane (the title even sounds like something an Italian or British director may have dashed off in 1977) may not be all that original, but Soderbergh still manages to find something interesting to do with a genre he didn’t touch for decades.
Unsane opens in theaters on Friday (March 23).