I never particularly understood what makes Steven Soderbergh unique as an auteur until we covered his cerebral, low-fi prank Schizopolis for a Movie of the Month conversation last year. Filmed cheaply on Super 8 cameras while dicking around in the hellish mediocrity of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Schizopolis is alone justification for Soderbergh’s reputation as a scrappy experimenter in content & form. If I hadn’t already gotten on his wavelength by catching up with that experiment in low-fi irreverence last year, 2018’s Unsane would have been just as viable of an entry point. Here, Soderbergh bridges the gap by getting on my wavelength, delivering the exact heightened horror schlock I cherish the most at the movies. Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in the modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Much like how Schizopolis mixed heady existential crises with the lower irreverence of Kids in the Hall sketch comedy, Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container, but find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.
Claire Foy stars as a cutthroat corporate stooge who works in one of those sickly, florescent-lit cubicle hells from past Soderbergh joints like Schizopolois & Full Frontal. She comes across as aggressively uptight & snooty, but not without reason to be on-edge. Her mother constantly infantilizes & undermines her. Her boss leverages his position to hit on her without consequence. Potential Tinder hookups pose a threat of physical harm to her as a single woman who lives alone. Her steeled exterior is a performative defense, mostly because of a violent stalker from her past that has driven her into a constant state of fear & paranoia. As she relapses into seeing this stalker’s face in spaces he logically cannot occupy, she seeks psychiatric help from a mental health facility that tricks her into “voluntarily” committing herself for suicide watch. Once she’s locked into that system, the hospital uses every small infraction possible to extend her stay, heartlessly milking her for insurance money. The scam is described (mostly by a fellow level-headed patient, SNL vet Jay Pharaoh) in terms of a prison sentence: “They’re locking up sane people for profit,” “Do your time. Keep your head down,” “Learn how to live the routine,” etc. Remaining cool, calm, and collected proves to be impossible, though, as the stalker she fears so much surfaces as an employee of the hospital’s, an authority figure she cannot escape. Worse yet, nobody believes her, perhaps not even the audience. The rest of the film from there is a cheap slasher masquerading as a giallo mystery & a wryly funny descent into the bowels of Kafkaesque capitalist bureaucracy.
Besides my more general appreciation for morally tacky horror, I have a very specific love for affordable fad technology being documented in microbudget (and often technophobic) genre pieces. In the past, I’ve praised at length the laptop POV of Unfriended, the gaming app aesthetic of Nerve & #horror, the ringtone eeriness of Suicide Club, the GoPro energy of Afflicted, the Snapchat pop grime of Sickhouse, and so on. On the surface, Unsane’s iPhone cinematography appears to be closer tied to the classy transcendence of the medium in works like Tangerine & Damascene, but the film is too deliberately, persistently ugly to make that leap. Soderbergh intentionally chooses outright hideous angles & vantage points that recall daily digital footage we’re used to seeing outside of cinematic contexts: security camera pans, low-angle YouTube uploads, uncomfortably close webcam conversations, voyeuristic distance in clips of celebrities’ or strangers’ public behavior covertly captured on smartphones. However, outside a brief sequence where social media is explained to be a security liability to stalkers’ victims, there isn’t much outright paranoia about the evils of modern technology reflected in this approach. Instead, the film uses pedestrian modes of everyday, we-all-do-it filmmaking to approximate the feel of an investigative journalist sneaking a hidden camera into a crooked mental institution that holds patients against their will, like the horror film equivalent of an episode of Dateline NBC. An occasional experiment in double-exposure digi-photography pushes the aesthetic beyond that approach to match the protagonist’s manic (or too-heavily medicated) psyche, but Unsane mostly dwells in the drab digital hell we’re immersed in online daily. It’s something I always appreciate from my trashy horror movies, if not only as an honest document of our current culture as it truly looks to the unfortunate souls who live it.
Almost anything I could praise about Unsane would potentially be a turn-off to other viewers. Like with last year’s Split, I love the films schlocky premise as is, but wouldn’t hold it against anyone who finds its treatment of mental illness as morally repugnant. As I’ve learned from recommending small budget technophobic horrors in the past, not everyone shares my voracious appetite for pedestrian digital photography in their proper cinema. Claire Foy’s central performance (as the wonderfully named Sawyer Valentini) might be universally recognizable as a knockout punch of paranoid tension, but it’s in service of a dark, dry, often cruel sense of humor with punchlines like “Hail, Satan!” & offhanded blowjob references that might derail her presence’s wider appeal. I’m saying this to note that, like Schizopolis & Full Frontal, Unsane is firmly rooted in the required taste end of Soderbergh’s career, far from the bombastic crowd-pleaser territory of an Oceans 11 or a Magic Mike. Respecting its themes of abuse within the bureaucratic capitalist paradigm or of men in power dismissing the claims of women in crisis is not enough in itself. You must also be down with its indulgence in the moral & visual grime of microbudget exploitation horror. That dual set of interests might be a slim column on the Venn Diagram of Unsane‘s genre film experimentation, but I totally felt at home in that position. With Schizoplolis, I ventured out into the wilderness of Soderbergh’s psyche to understand him on his own terms. With Unsane, he returned the favor by stooping down to my lowly genre film trash pile to offer me a leg up.