Unsane comes undone due to glaring plot holes and plausibility issues likely to distract even the most forgiving of viewers from the story and characters.
Director Steven Soderbergh used a trio of iPhone 7 Pluses to shoot his new film, Unsane, and it shows in the graininess of the visuals, all too discernible on the big screen. Further, depth of field limitations with the lenses translate to distorted images. It could be argued that such distortions are artistically appropriate (the setting is a mental institution, and the lead character is prone to paranoia and delusions). However, the same unsettling effects could have been achieved with quality cameras. So what’s the point of using iPhones? Sure, Soderbergh is an experimentalist from way back, but he’s not breaking new ground here – there have been other films shot on iPhones (eg: Sean Baker’s Tangerine). Going lo-fi by choice rather than out of budgetary necessity seems gimmicky and wanky to me.
My gripes with Unsane are not confined to the merely technical, and here again, perhaps, the modus operandi of the director is called into question. Apparently Soderbergh shot the film in two weeks. Maybe that accounts for the glaring plot holes and plausibility issues that dog the film to the point of distracting from the story and characters. A little more time for thinking things through and some judicious editing could have worked wonders.
The set-up is promising, although hardly original. 30-something bank analyst Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) makes a lunchtime appointment at a psychiatric institution due to anxiety and panic attacks deriving from two years of being stalked, on account of which she has fled her home state. Unwittingly, she signs a paper confining herself as an inpatient for 24 hours. Worse, after an altercation with another patient she finds herself committed for a longer period against her will and placed on a regime of sedative meds.
Losing one’s autonomy in a mental institution is, of course, an intrinsically terrifying prospect, and we seem set for a white-knuckle ride. Indeed, things get pretty tense and scary for a while.
However, the rot sets in when Sawyer reels back in horror at recognising one of the orderlies as David Strine (Joshua Leonard), her stalker. We begin to question her sanity. Is she delusional, or is this orderly really who she thinks he is? Unfortunately, the question is answered far too promptly, at which point Soderbergh forfeits the opportunity to make something really interesting of the film. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Sawyer’s on the money: it IS Mr Strine the stalker! But how could that be? We can accept that he’d followed her to her new state and had her in his sights, but how could he have anticipated her mistakenly signing herself into the institution and immediately gotten a job as an orderly? Well, by murdering a real orderly and assuming his identity. Ferchrissake – really? Wouldn’t his co-workers and management have noticed he looked, like, different? This is but one of a series of equally ludicrous logic lapses. I won’t bother detailing the rest. They’re all pretty bleeding obvious.
From here on, the film descends into B-grade (or worse) horror territory, as the body count rises and Mr Strine closes in on his prey, eventually trapping her in a padded cell in the basement of the institution (what, no surveillance cams?).
Ironically, the highlight of the film occurs in this improbable locale – a brilliantly managed exchange in which Sawyer turns the table on her stalker. Zoning in on his vulnerabilities and manipulating him in an emasculating game of psychological cat and mouse, she reduces him to the pathetic creep he is. It’s thrilling to see her seize power back from her oppressor, yes, but by this stage there’s no saving the film. Indeed, some of the worst logic flaws and schlocky moments are yet to come.
Soderbergh has always been hit and miss. There’s no mistaking which side of the divide Unsane belongs.
Movie Website: https://bleeckerstreetmedia.com/unsane
Australian release date: Unsane in Australian cinemas from Feb 9, 2018
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