Film: Risky business outside the system

Written By: Patrick Mulcahy
Published: March 28, 2018 Last modified: March 28, 2018


Director: Steven Soderbergh


You don’t go to a Steven Soderbergh movie expecting uplifting love stories and the triumph of the human spirit. His films are for the most part about failing relationships and failed systems. His characters take on – either directly or indirectly – conspiracies, injustices and lies. Are they happy by the end? Not completely. Is there religion in his films? Absolutely not! Do his films offer pleasure? We enjoy the camaraderie of his characters as they reach for the skies, whether taking on a corrupt power company in Erin Brockovich, robbing a casino in the Oceans trilogy or battling to control a virus in Contagion. The one box-office success in his oeuvre that doesn’t fit this mould is Magic Mike, a film about male strippers starring Channing Tatum, though even that fits in a sub-theme about how we handle sexual desire. Its counterpoint is his low-budget drama, The Girlfriend Experience, about a $2,000 an hour call-girl played by real-life porn star, Sasha Grey.

In the last decade, Soderbergh has increasing focused on the medical profession both in the past in his ‘period’ television series, The Knick, starring Clive Owen, and the present in the films Side Effects and now Unsane. Soderbergh also likes to set himself technical challenges, some of which compliment the content. Unsane is shot entirely on an i-Phone, which gives it an even depth of field – the background is never out of focus – but also relies on him using super-imposition to suggest a medically-induced freak out. Soderbergh uses genre contrivances to draw us in. Unsane is nominally about a traumatised professional, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), admitted against her will in a medical facility in which her long-time stalker, Peter Strine (Joshua Leonard) is working.

Quite late in the film, Soderbergh, working from a script by Joshua Bernstein and James Greer, the writing duo behind the Jackie Chan kids comedy, The Spy Next Door (didn’t see that coming) has Peter declare that he knows Sawyer’s tastes: her favourite book is Pale Fire. In that book, Vladimir Nabokov offered a poem superseded by its foot notes. The link is apparent: don’t look at the plot, rather at the background – medical facilities whose business models operate on keeping patients until the insurance runs out, opioid addiction and the cost to the victim of being stalked. Soderbergh’s point is abundantly clear: we can’t treat ailments and societal problems with business ethics.

Producing the film outside of the studio system, Soderbergh takes a second risk, offering us a nominally unsympathetic protagonist. When we first see her, Sawyer is berating a caller (“If you don’t like my report, go to another bank”). She has intimacy issues, avoiding going with her boss to Las Vegas for a conference. Yet she doesn’t run from her problem, consulting with the Highland Creek Medical Center, where, after not reading the forms she has signed, she is admitted. She cannot believe that her stalker has assumed another identity and is dispensing medication –and we don’t either.

The film indulges some of the conventions of the prison drama, with one inmate, Violet (Juno Temple, her hair in braids) taking an instant and threatening dislike to her. Yet Sawyer bonds with another patient, Nate (Jay Pharoah) who loans her his mobile phone. The banter between them shows Sawyer edging towards recovery, though Nate consistently warns her: “it’s different on the outside” In this exchange we sense that in a less extreme way he is also managing unwanted sexual interest.

Genre inevitably kicks in, but Soderbergh isn’t interested in the flashy suspenseful set piece. He can achieve the same effect by putting two characters in the same room at either side of the frame. We fear for the approach of a potential attacker. Soderbergh also has fun with the cold language that medical professionals use – one doctor ends his conversations with ‘to be continued’, the medical administrator with the words ‘we have great outcomes here’. Both of them deflect rather than address the questions being asked. This functional use of language compliments the flat, occasionally murky visual style and inexpressive camerawork with its tracking shots but no pans.

Soderbergh’s points are diluted by the contrivances of the plot and by presenting Sawyer as kick-ass – her first exchange with Nate ends with a knee to his groin. Foy is so petite that we scarcely believe that she is a violent dynamo or that the men at the receiving end cannot dodge her blows.

The final scene presents us with a problem that hasn’t been solved – trauma reduces the ability to empathise. Just when I wanted to write Unsane off as a low-ambition experiment in genre filmmaking, with nods to Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridoor and, more recently, Gothika, starring Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz, the film offers a coda that is the antithesis of feel-good Hollywood kitsch. This moment is so well-earned that I wanted to punch the air in solidarity, though this would spoil the experience of the viewers sitting behind me.

About Patrick Mulcahy

Patrick Mulcahy is a film critic for Tribune and Chartist, to which he has contributed for over twenty years.