The opening scene of Unsane, recalls two distinct things with no dialog: in a long, handheld POV shot (the movie was shot on an iPhone); it homages the opening credits’ style of sleazy, early Hollywood suspense pictures (such as Detour or Decoy), and director Steven Soderbergh’s distinct, organic use of color temperature in his mise en scène is filtered through it. Immediately, I knew to expect an eerie, Bitchuation-style, film experiment, not an attempt to win the weekend or earn a gold statue.
As the original B-pictures of Poverty Row proved, one of the most fascinating paradoxes about low budget storytelling art; constraints free artists from limitations. Steven Soderbergh is a storytelling artist who almost seems interested in nothing but challenging himself at this point, but even when he missteps, I’d rather watch him trip – and sometimes nearly fall – than support someone enabling fear inducing, institutionalized problems.
Flaws and all Unsane is more engaging, inviting of thought and emotion, more thrilling and suspenseful – all in all just more artfully compelling – than most all other things just one click away in the our current media market. Claire Foy’s performance is magnetic; impressive while veering on frightening (though her accent is a bit wonky at points). Unfortunately, the plot splits off into too many directions and, sadly, when it thinks its twisting; almost every place it goes is too expected.
Regardless, the effectiveness of Soderbergh’s handling of the (far too many) structural elements, as well as the tension, make the narrative feel as if its funneling into a black hole, rather than grown into a garden where the weeds have simply been neglected. While much designed for shock and awe, plot-wise, doesn’t land as it perhaps could, a blunt and confident stylistic approach makes up for it. (There’s an uneasy quality, inconsistent/imperfect symmetry to the compositions that’s super effective – the aspect ratio is 1:56:1… it’s a whole new depth of field experience) It may go too many places it may have been better off ignoring, and some dialog is a more than a bit too on the nose, but, by the last shot, I no longer cared. The movie had accomplished what it wanted to.
Sure, it may be chasing the tails of a Carrie, or a The Shining – in varying departments – and it may not succeed in all the ways they do, but it isn’t their aim to. Unsane is a creative project that believes the world is better off with a ward of flawed genre experiments, rather than a few siege towers leading an army of uniforms, being led to the slaughter by studio gate keepers.