Monday, March 26, 2018

UNSANE in the Brain

Unsane, Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, is a breathlessly suspenseful psychological thriller built upon a great lead performance, and an experiment in technical limitations. It finds tightly wound tension as a woman (Claire Foy) is involuntarily committed to a mental institution and therefore quickly pushed to her wits end. The more she loudly and wildly proclaims her sanity, the less the staff is likely to believe her, especially when the cops see the paperwork she signed, and the insurance company signs off on underwriting her stay. Shot almost entirely on iPhones, the perspective is unfamiliar, set on tables and desks, at unusually close or low angles a full-sized camera on a conventional set couldn’t possibly find. There’s a sense of tactile energy to the framing, and a crackling sense of unease in how unfamiliar the look becomes. This isn’t manipulated like Sean Baker’s Tangerine (the other major iPhone-shot feature) to have a rough-hewn beauty approaching the digital expressiveness of Michael Mann or latter day Godard. Soderbergh allows for the phone’s camera to manifest natural jaggedness in pans, slight wobbling of focus at the edges, tight aspect ratio that leaves black the edges of a properly sized and matted theater screen. Every interaction seems ripe with danger. The whole frame is closing in on its main character, trapping her as reality seems to warp and distort in the bugs of the visual information’s capture. 

The trick of the movie is the deceptively simple filmmaking and crystal clear screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer letting suspicion cloud judgement. Maybe, the thought occurred to me early on, our protagonist really is in need of this treatment. She went to see a therapist about lingering uneasiness related to being the victim of a stalker (Joshua Leonard). She admits to occasional thoughts of self-harm. Then she’s asked back into the inner wards and locked in a seven day stay for her own good, cooped up with others (Jay Pharaoh, Juno Temple) who view her as one of them. Soon, she starts lashing out – striking an employee, berating her fellow patients – eventually appearing to hallucinate her stalker is one of the nurses at the facility. How easy it is to slip out of sanity, when stress is pushed to the limits. She feels trapped, held against her will, loudly protesting when no one believes her pleas. She is unsafe, she cries. No, say the doctors, she is simply unsane. Soderbergh takes her point of view at clinical face value, the great twist brewing in plain sight. He’s simply not trying to trick you, playing everything exactly straight, playing the audience’s doubts against his character. Foy does a Grade-A breakdown, expertly modulating her mood swings from exasperated frustration and wailing despair to violent disbelief or depressed resignation and back again as the week stretches on. As the film picks up in a pulpy fever pitch, it becomes a double-edged harm – from a health care system easily manipulated by corrupt individuals, and from the long-lasting effects of trauma. It’s as gripping an experiment as any Soderbergh has yet pulled off.

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