Friday, March 23, 2018

In Theaters: UNSANE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer. Cast: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irving, Aimee Mullins, Matt Damon, Polly McKie, Sarah Stiles, Michael Mihm, Robert Kelly, Gibson Frazier, Raul Castillo, Will Brill, Stephen Maier, Myra Lucretia Taylor. (R, 98 mins)

Steven Soderbergh emerged from his four-year, big-screen "retirement" (during which he directed an HBO movie and two seasons of the Cinemax series THE KNICK, and produced several projects for others) with last year's charming and funny LOGAN LUCKY. By the time that film was in theaters, Soderbergh had already secretly made UNSANE, described as a low-budget horror film shot entirely with an iPhone 7 Plus, with the exception of a drone camera for some exteriors. Fans of Italian horror with recognize UNSANE as the title of the severely-cut US version of Dario Argento's 1982 classic TENEBRAE, but the comparisons end there. UNSANE was written not by Soderbergh but by the team of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, whose writing credits include such classics as Lindsay Lohan's JUST MY LUCK, Jackie Chan's THE SPY NEXT DOOR, and their crowning achievement, LARRY THE CABLE GUY: HEALTH INSPECTOR. Nevertheless, through the iPhone 7 Plus and other recurring themes, Soderbergh, once again handling cinematography duties as "Peter Andrews" and editing as "Mary Ann Bernard," makes UNSANE his own, and it's a mess. Even the iPhone gimmick isn't original: several years before he directed THE FLORIDA PROJECT, Sean Baker made his indie breakthrough with TANGERINE, shot entirely with an iPhone 5S. Though he's had major box-office hits with films like TRAFFIC, ERIN BROCKOVICH, and the OCEAN'S ELEVEN trilogy, Soderbergh has found some success and critical accolades with more offbeat and, to varying degrees, experimental projects (THE LIMEY, BUBBLE, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, the ambitious four-hour epic CHE), and has even gone "slumming" in genre fare before with 2012's enjoyable Gina Carano actioner HAYWIRE. UNSANE is one of his worst films, but at least it's better than 2002's FULL FRONTAL, his unwatchable, star-studded, self-indulgent homage to French New Wave shot with the Canon XL-1s. There's several scenes in UNSANE, especially in the early going, where Soderbergh's use of the iPhone 7 indeed adds to the sense of unease he's trying to establish, but the longer the film goes on, the dumber and more ridiculous it gets. By the time the heroine wakes up in a trunk and Soderbergh's breaking out the night vision, it's hard to shake the feeling that he's either bored out of his mind or hasn't seen enough low-budget indie horror films over the last two decades to recognize the cliches.

The improbably-named Sawyer Valentini (THE CROWN's Claire Foy) has just moved to suburban Pennsylvania from Boston. She works as a financial analyst and doesn't seem to be well-liked by her colleagues, though she tells her mom Angela (Amy Irving sighting!) that everything's great and moving 450 miles away was a career opportunity she couldn't pass up. She's on Tinder and meets guys for one-nighters, but what she hasn't told her mom or anyone else is that she moved from Boston to get away from a stalker who trailed her for two years, and whose face she still keeps seeing everywhere--at work, on the men she meets--and she never feels safe, which isn't helped by her boss not very subtly propositioning her to go on business trip to New Orleans with him. Feeling a one-on-one session might help sort out her thoughts, she makes an appointment with a counselor at the reputable Highland Creek Behavioral Center. Handed some paperwork requiring her signature after mentioning she had fleeting thoughts of suicide in the past, Sawyer realizes too late that she's been duped into signing an agreement to be voluntarily committed for 24 hours, which turns into seven days after repeat instances of violently lashing out at staff and patients when they refuse to release her. She's endlessly taunted by white trash patient Violet (Juno Temple), but befriends another, Nate (former SNL cast member Jay Pharoah), who's recovering from an opioid addiction and has a secretly stashed phone that he loans to Sawyer after she loses her privileges. She calls her mom, who drives to Highland Creek only to be stonewalled by chief administrator Ashley Brighterhouse (Aimee Mullins), and to make matters worse, the stalker from Boston, David Strine (Joshua Leonard, looking and sounding like Zach Galifianakis), is also at Highland Creek, working as an orderly under a phony name. Or is Sawyer's mind playing tricks on her?

Soderbergh shows his cards too soon with almost every plot twist, whether the orderly is really Strine or what Nate is really doing at Highland Creek. Characters also start doing stupid things when it's convenient for the plot (with eyes everywhere, how does no one ever catch Nate on his phone?). The iPhone 7 approach does yield some initially intriguing results, with Soderbergh keeping the camera at a distance as Sawyer goes about her day, almost like you are voyeuristically stalking her. He frequently plants the camera right in Foy's face, getting you up close and personal with someone who's either cracking up or completely sane and freaking out because she's being gaslighted and can't convince anyone that the new orderly is a lunatic creep. But after a while, when everything becomes clear and there's no ambiguity left, UNSANE devolves into what looks like the kind of no-budget horror indie that might break out and maybe get some attention and help establish a first-time director. To that end, the presence of Leonard, one of the stars of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT almost 20 years ago, can't be coincidental.

For a young filmmaker trying to make his bones--Sean Baker, for instance--a gimmick like shooting an entire movie on an iPhone is a feat of overcoming obstacles and a triumph of DIY aesthetic. But for someone like Soderbergh, an Academy Award-winner who's been lauded as great filmmaker for nearly 30 years, works with the biggest stars in Hollywood, and has several huge hits to his credit, it comes off like cynical wankery. It's not an example of a master filmmaker subverting genre expectations, and if it was made by a young no-namer, it would likely be premiering at your nearest Redbox. UNSANE starts out fine but Soderbergh seems to lose focus quickly, unable to decide if he's making a no-budget indie horror movie or an ERIN BROCKOVICH-meets-SHOCK CORRIDOR-type expose on medical and insurance industry corruption. There's hints at a timely #MeToo or #TimesUp angle with Sawyer's lecherous boss and the way she recoils from a Tinder hookup ("You initiated!" the guy pleads), but that goes nowhere. Foy gives it her all and Pharoah is natural and likable (one very likely ad-libbed line from him gets a huge laugh), but a mannered Leonard is a cartoonishly cliched antagonist and there's also a pointless and distracting appearance by Soderbergh pal Matt Damon in a flashback as a security expert advising Sawyer about stalkers. It all leads to a weak and unsatisfying conclusion that ends the film on a frustrating note. Soderbergh's name and history will get this some significant critical cache since it's a planned move instead of one borne of a stalled career (UNSANE isn't good, but we're not talking Roland Joffe's CAPTIVITY here), but at the end of the day, there's nothing here that a kid just out of film school couldn't have done just as well.

Soderbergh filming UNSANE

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