Steven Soderbergh’s quiet return from non-retirement continues with a decidedly less fun entry than last summer’s Logan Lucky. This time the filmmaker goes for psychological horror with Unsane, a psych ward-set tale of compliance, paranoia, and dominance. The film is also a return to the low budget, grungy digital filmmaking that he has often been fascinated with, this time to equally grimy material.
Sawyer (Claire Foy) has relocated to avoid a stalker, but she keeps seeing visions of him that may or may not be real. When she seeks counseling help from a nearby hospital, she inadvertently submits herself to a psych ward and her pleas of sanity quickly fall on unfeeling ears. Oh and her stalker (Joshua Leonard) may or may not also be a current nurse on the ward. For a straightforward potboiler premise, Soderbergh can’t contain its messiness under the surface.
Unsane approaches an abstract, almost Lynch-esque embodiment of the aftermath faced by victims of sexual assault: dissociation from one’s own body, systemic disbelief, lingering distrust and an establishment profiting from injustice. Buried within this pulpy, grimy thriller is some interesting and uniquely delivered insight on what it feels like to be in the skin of a woman whose truth isn’t believed. But the film and its intentions are hampered by its manic plot developments, its labors on stylistic tics that ultimately distract itself from the subject rather than enhance the experience.
Soderbergh has crafted something outright visually aggressive with this iPhone experiment, making something that’s almost accusatory to the audience, and not always in interesting ways. This is certainly more of a piece with his other low-fi films like Full Frontal than his more populist (or populist-adjacent) fare, but this does feel more in sync to style and substance than those efforts, even if it remains mostly unsuccessful. What could have been appropriately hideous is just generally ugly.
There are some delightfully strange elements in Soderbergh fashion, like the everpresent antiseptic nature of institutions and a sometimes grating protagonist. While Claire Foy delivers casual brilliance in some of the film’s peak moments (the blue room is a bravura standout), the director remains energized moreso by his quirky ensemble. Juno Temple is the kind of crazed gutter princess only she can deliver and Jay Pharoah delivers some much needed understated levity.
Unsane is unfortunately not quite subversive and not quite inspired. For all of its immersive and punishing insight into the psyche of the abused, Unsane undoes itself by haplessly jumping too many of its own sharks. There is an odd disregard for internal logic that is a bit too much for this abstraction to bear, turning a weird and intentionally uncomfortable sit into a frustrating one.