Sunday, March 25, 2018

Unsane / **½ (R)

Bleeker Street

Sawyer Valentini: Claire Foy
Nate Hoffman: Jay Pharoah
Violet: Juno Temple
David Strine: Joshua Leonard
Angela Valentini: Amy Irving

Bleeker Street Media and Fingerprint Releasing present a film directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer. Running time: 97 min. Rated R (for disturbing behavior, violence, language and sex references).

When reviewing a movie like Steven Soderbergh’s latest feature, Unsane, a critic is faced with a dilemma of split purposes. On the one hand, you are reviewing a thriller that depends upon the tropes of the genre and the storytellers’ abilities to surprise and create tension for the audience. On the other hand, you’re reviewing an experiment of sorts. Soderbergh’s second feature film back from his brief “retirement” is not the first feature film to be shot on an iPhone, but the success of such films—mostly in terms of box office—has yet to reach a point where any sort of verdict has been made as to an audience’s willingness to accept such a film medium as mainstream. For the most part, Soderbergh’s experiment is a success in that it doesn’t feel like an experiment in the slightest; which raises the question, why exactly was this screenplay chosen for this experiment?

The screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer raises questions about the mental health industry in this country. These questions are important and legitimate, focusing on the very real practices of a select few voluntary admittance facilities that take advantage of their clients’ lack of knowledge about their rights and the willingness of insurance companies to cover such admittances without question for short periods of time. Unfortunately, other aspects of the screenplay bring into question the legitimacy of the mental health industry as a whole and could be seen as exploiting the realities of mental health issues for the purposes of schlock entertainment. I’m all for schlock, but there were times while watching this film that I felt uncomfortable about how little understanding the filmmakers were displaying in order to pump up the horror entertainment value of their story.

That story focuses on Sawyer Valentini, a career professional who has just moved to a new job in a new city suddenly enough that her own mother doesn’t understand why she has changed her life so dramatically. Sawyer seems uncomfortable in her job. She doesn’t appear to have made any friends or is even trying to. She goes on a tinder date with a sense of both desperation and hesitation beyond what such a date should seem to entail. When she becomes too emotionally distraught to continue the date we eventually witness her searching therapy programs for “stalker” victims. Aha!

This is where some of the mental health care representations start to get a little murky. Sawyer has a very brief meeting with a therapist who determines that she may be a threat to herself or others and has Sawyer sign forms for a voluntary committal to assess her state over the duration of 24 hours. When Sawyer attacks another patient and a staff member, the facility’s psychiatrist determines to hold her for another 7 days on an involuntary basis. Unfortunately, the writers play a little loose with procedure here, which reflects unfairly on the mental health community. It’s necessary that Sawyer doesn’t fully understand what’s happening to her, which requires the facilitators of this treatment center to be very vague and unclear with her during her voluntary committal. While this has the affect of drawing into question just how far gone Sawyer is, it seems highly unlikely that such a facility would be so uncommunicative with a potential client.

Later, after Sawyer befriends another patient who tells her the survival rules, he enlightens her on practices of such facilities to admit patients as a business practice to get insurance companies to pay them despite the legitimacy of the patient’s fragile mental state. This, unfortunately, is a known practice of a few less reputable rehab facilities. In this sense, the film could be seen as spotlighting a real problem in the mental health industry. However, what eventually unfolds when Sawyer becomes convinced that one of the staff members is her stalker, destroys any possibilities of a fair examination of the questionable practices of such facilities. Considering how everything plays out in the end, the logic of how any of what happens is completely bonkers and destroys any of the plot’s credibility.

Despite the gaping holes in the plot and the exploitation of the mental health care industry, Soderbergh does as good a job building the tension of the script as he does allowing the audience to forget that the film was shot on an iPhone. There are times when the fisheye effect of the filming medium becomes a distraction, but there are others when Soderbergh uses the effect in a way that serves the story well. It does exemplify that close ups don’t always work so well for dramatic effect with an iPhone due to its lens's fisheye effect.

The performances are equally up to the task of masking the filming medium. Claire Foy, known best for her role as Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown, does a good job keeping the audience in question about Sawyer’s sanity. She brings a precise nature to her that seems almost too forced, as if she’s been on the brink of collapse for quite some time. Even her wardrobe before her incarceration suggests something is off with her in the way her clothes seem slightly too large. Jay Paroah, of SNL fame, makes a nice dramatic turn here as Nate, Sawyer’s only friend on the inside. It’s clear that he is also not exactly what he seems, but his concern for Sawyer always comes off as genuine.  And Joshua Leonard brings just the right amount of over-sincerity to his nice guy act as the nurse Sawyer thinks is her stalker—enough to make you believe she might not be crazy, but not enough to convince you without further evidence.

I hate to refer to any finished film as an experiment, but I also can’t help thinking that this one really is for Soderbergh. I doubt this is the reputation the screenwriters desire for it. If the writing were stronger, it may have outshone the experimental filming medium. However, Soderbergh must be continuing his emergence from feature film retirement for some reason. He was quite vocal about how much the fundraising process for feature filmmaking discouraged him from following his unique visions in this medium. This particular vision doesn’t seem to be quite in the area of originality that Soderbergh generally operates. The iPhone may, however, alleviate filmmakers from the burden of obtaining so much money to start a project. What Soderbergh gives us here is a true feature that proves such cost effective film mediums can produce features capable of replicating the film quality of big budget features. In that sense, at least, Unsane is an unquestionable success.

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