CREDIT: Fingerprint Releasing/Bleecker Street

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Claire Foy, Jay Pharoah, Joshua Leonard, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving, Juno Temple, Polly McKie

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: R for Pill-Induced Distortion, Unsanitary Use of a Tampon, and a Violent Spree

Release Date: March 23, 2018

Steven Soderbergh has made a career out of messing around with the standard bounds of cinema, often in ways that could come off as a gimmick in the hands of a less assured director. His latest, Unsane, sets itself apart with its iPhone 7 Plus 4K cinematography (credited to Soderbergh himself). Smartphone photography is certainly advanced enough to make a feature film look as professional as it ought to, so for those who are capable, the smartphone option simply deserves to be added to the docket of available cameras. Thematically, an iPhone fits Unsane’s story of a woman committed to a mental institution against her will, as it compresses the depth of field and lends a dull sheen that lingers in the uncanny valley between intimate and detached.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a businesswoman rising up the corporate ladder, but she is haunted by a troubled past and feelings of loneliness in a new city. The nature of her job is never fully specified (kind of hilariously), but it appears to have something to do with customer service, and she also appears to have power to hire and fire. She has been dealing with occasionally crippling anxiety caused by a stalker . After one particularly bad episode, she drops by for a therapy session, which leads to her signing some forms, which somehow results in her being committed to a mental facility and unable to leave, as she has been declared a danger to herself and to others.

Sawyer’s circumstances quickly become too sinister for this to be a simple mistake or an innocent misdiagnosis, suggesting that a conspiracy is afoot. A staff member (Joshua Leonard) appears to be her stalker in disguise – has he orchestrated the whole thing? Or is the truth to be found from the most well-adjusted resident (Jay Pharoah), who divulges to Sawyer that she is the victim of an insurance scam in which the institution forces people to be committed for as long as their coverage will pay for it? Or is it some combination of forces, working together, or simultaneously coincidentally all ganging up on Sawyer? Of course, there is also the possibility that this could all be in her head, as everything unspools from her point of view the whole time.

This could be a formula for devastatingly unsettling ambiguity, but Soderbergh is not especially concerned about questioning the nature of reality. This is more just a setup for him to explore his particular tastes in psychological and claustrophobic thrills. In many respects, Unsane is satisfying simply on a lurid and pulpy level. Soderbergh does definitely dig deeper than that, presenting in stark terms how both institutional and corporate life can be dehumanizing, their loss of morals too easily justified with a sweep under the rug. Those moments of carelessness and lack of empathy do not usually result in ordeals as dangerous as Sawyer’s, but the opportunities for abuse are there for those who want to take advantage of them.

Unsane is Recommended If You Like: Side Effects, Shutter Island, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Gone Girl

Grade: 4 out of 5 Medical Forms