Hot Take: Experimental doesn’t always mean excellent. Scripts matter. Unsane fails on so many levels to deliver something coherent and if someone other than Steven Soderbergh were to have been behind this mess, it would not be as well received.
I’ll be blunt about Unsane, the latest effort from Steven Soderbergh which experiments with the idea of shooting completely with the iPhone, I hated it. The last time I left the theater this angry about a movie was 2016’s Mother’s Day. While many critics are fawning over Steven Soderbergh’s B-movie shot entirely with an iPhone 7 Plus, this particular moviegoer can’t sign off on the finished product hampered by a terrible screenplay written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, the masterminds behind classics such as Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Max Keeble’s Big Move, Just My Luck and The Spy Next Door. The resulting product is a slickly directed bad movie featuring a gimmicky device that would have worked to add realism to a more plausible film but here, thanks to some sloppy, insulting choices by the writers who most think all audience members won’t care if nothing makes sense, it just makes it a novelty act. Most other directors would have been stuck with taking some of the heat for an incoherent and unintelligible storyline but Soderbergh’s pedigree allows him to get off the hook for these poor choices.
Maybe I’m being too harsh and there’s a good chance you’ll read some minor spoilers if you continue on in this review but here’s why Unsane fails miserably in my eyes. Unsane‘s main character is Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). She moves from Boston to Pennsylvania and we initially glean from a conversation with her mother that she does so for a career opportunity. Stressed out being in a new place, Sawyer goes to a psychiatric hospital where she talks to a therapist about her problems. When Sawyer opens the door for the therapist to ask about suicidal thoughts, Sawyer makes a few off-hand comments about wanting her last moments to be spent finding out her tolerance for taking drugs. Construed as having a plan to kill herself, the therapist has Sawyer sign some papers presented as routine which allows the psychiatric hospital to check her in voluntarily for 24 hours. Forced to strip and be checked by Nurse Boles (Polly McKie) — because every movie in a psychiatric hospital has to have a Nurse Ratched clone — for distinguishing marks and then allowed to make a phone call which she wastes on calling 911 (Because who’s going to believe a crazy person who says she’s been forced to stay in a mental hospital?), things get more out of control when Sawyer resorts to physical violence when she erroneously mistakes one of the orderlies for a person she thinks has been stalking her for 2 years. After this, she earns a meeting with the head of the facility who informs her, because of her violent outburst, they’ve determined her stay needs to be extended to 7 days.
But that’s not where the film goes off the rails and considering there was a 2016 Buzzfeed story with similar claims of psychiatric hospitals admitting patients against their will to collect insurance money, it’s not even as far-fetched a premise as it seems on the surface. (SPOILER ALERT!) Once we get to the meat of the tale, that’s where reality slips away and something utterly stupid takes its place. We’ve already been introduced to what Sawyer’s stalker David (Joshua Leonard) looks like in her initial mistaken glimpse of him. However, when Sawyer goes to collect her first pharmaceutical cocktail, David is the orderly handing out the drugs. She obviously loses it and despite his proclamations that he is Greg and not David, she won’t let it go and then gets into another fight with another patient and, next thing you know, she’s strapped back into her bed and drugged out of her mind. At this point, you start to wonder if maybe Sawyer is crazy. We also learn from another patient (Jay Pharaoh) that there’s some validity to Sawyer’s claims that she’s being admitted purposely against her will so you have reason to believe she’s perfectly sane. We’re still not to the off the rails part. It’s when we learn that Greg is actually David that the movie already teetering on the edge of falling apart, comes unglued. Maybe you’re able to overlook all of the implausible things that would have to happen in a short period of time to get where we are in this film or maybe the iPhone experiment is so unique you don’t care but for this viewer, I felt insulted to be asked to suspend such disbelief.
(MAJOR SPOILERS THE REST OF THE WAY…) What we’re expected to believe is that Sawyer moved from Boston to Pennsylvania to get away from her stalker who she’s been running from for 2 years. Easy enough. The next leap of faith is not so easy as somehow David was able to get a job at the psychiatric hospital where Sawyer coincidentally ends up. Wouldn’t David have to pass a background check? Wait! That’s easy enough to explain since he’s got a fake identity working for him. From all indications, though, David didn’t get a job at the psychiatric hospital. He instead killed Greg and assumed his role at the hospital. At some point in the film, we see Greg’s body in the morgue. Greg and David look nothing alike… so, how the hell does he pass as Greg at the hospital? Was Greg catfishing the hospital? Did he already work there? If he did, how does no one remember what Greg looked like? If he’s new, what kind of timing would David have had to have to pull this off? Seriously! HELP! LET ME OUT!
But wait! It was filmed with an iPhone to give it some sort of gritty realness. That’s how we’re supposed to believe this nonsense, I guess. Later, once Sawyer is submitted to solitary confinement, David is able to disable the cameras in the room, make her disappear by removing her from the hospital’s records and keep her there against her will. He tries to wear her down and convince Sawyer to agree to go to his “off the grid” cabin in New Hampshire. Eventually, she escapes in a plan so convoluted and ridiculous, it isn’t even worth dissecting. Don’t worry, her escape which involves locking him in the same solitary confinement she’s trapped in, lasts for all of 90 seconds as David easily escapes the room. She ends up in David’s trunk next to her dead mother which seems like only necessary to show off some nifty night vision effects you can pull off with the iPhone 7. We never even make it to David’s cabin as it seems like even Soderbergh gets tired of this dumb plot and the film’s climax takes place in the middle of the woods as David is overwhelmed by his feelings for Sawyer so much seeing her lying motionless that he must lay down and cuddle. Why? My only explanation is that it’s because it’s written by the same duo that was willing to write a movie for Larry the Cable Guy. In B-movie fashion, Sawyer is able to kill her kidnapper in graphic fashion and escape her way back to reality.
I’d love to respect the artistic choices here by Soderbergh but this script isn’t worthy or relevant enough to warrant this experiment. Shockingly, having read reviews after the viewing, more than one critic was willing to compare Unsane to Get Out in some way, shape or form. This comparison absolutely dumbfounds me as one is a smart, socially conscious horror thriller that makes you believe in its premise while the other is a lazy, convoluted B-movie that with extrapolation and effort, a viewer could make this film out to be a commentary on something. For those who found enjoyment here, I get the dots you want to connect here but I’d be hard pressed to believe that all involved had any second level thinking into the meaning of the film other than trying to make it be a psychological horror thriller that a bunch of people will go see because a director with a pretty impressive pedigree shot it with an iPhone. It’s not a #MeToo manifesto. It’s not a subtle expose on the potential harm being done in our mental institutions because of corruption and greed. It’s not an indictment on our treatment of mental illness. These ideas all cloud the narrative to the point where there’s no narrative. It’s not much of anything, really. It’s just a filmmaker with the resume to give him cart blanche to film a movie with an iPhone and have it released to 2,000+ theaters. That’s all.
You’re a sucker for Soderbergh.
Read the 1,400+ words above. I think I give a few reasons.