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by Peter Sobczynski

"Commitment Issues"
4 stars

In “Unsane,” which marks his third directorial effort since coming out of his so-called “retirement” last summer (following “Logan Lucky” and the HBO series “Mosaic”), the always-ambitious Steven Soderbergh is trying to do three wildly different things at once. On the one hand, he is trying to make his version of the kind of low-budget exploitation film that he might have found himself doing in the early days of his career had “sex, lies and videotape” not hit as big as it did. On the other hand, he is trying to tell a story designed to expose the failures of the American for-profit health-care industry along the lines of what he did a few years ago with “Side Effects.” On the other other hand, he is attempting to follow in the path of Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” by taking a film that could have easily been shot via conventional methods and shooting the entire thing with an iPhone 7. That is a lot for any single filmmaker—even one as gifted as Soderbergh—to juggle and indeed, he is not able to quite pull it all off. This is not to say that the film as a whole is a failure by any means—however, it will be up to the individual viewer to figure out for themselves whether it is an okay movie containing a few too many hiccups to keep it from completely pulling together or a not-so-good movie with enough strong individual elements to hold one’s interest for at least most of its running time.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a bank data analyst who has just recently relocated to Pennsylvania from her home in Boston. She is good at her job—you do not want to be on the other end of the phone with her—but as we observe her going through her daily routine of solitary lunches, somewhat brusque phone calls with her mother (Amy Irving) and even brusquer Tinder dates (where she declares up front that she doesn’t want to see the guy a second time), we get the sense that something is a bit off with her. Trying to find some glimmer of peace, she one day takes her lunch hour to go to the benignly named Highland Creek Behavioral Center for a therapy session. After a seemingly innocuous talk, which includes a leaning question that causes her to admit that she has fleetingly thought of suicide in the past, and the signing of a few documents that she is told are boilerplate stuff, Sawyer tries to leave but is forbidden. It turns out that the suicide talk has marked her as a danger and the papers she signed were for a voluntary commitment for 24 hours to supposedly ensure that she will not harm herself. Naturally, she does not react to this very well and before long, her stay has been extended for a full week. Why a week? As fellow inmate Nate (Jay Pharaoh) tells her, places like Highland Creek lure people like Claire in and con them into committing themselves and when the insurance runs out—in a week in Claire’s case—they are suddenly cured. He advises her to keep a low profile and try to get through the week without any incidents.

Considering the run-ins that she has already had with the staff and fellow inmates like wild child violet (Juno Temple), that is already a tall order for Claire but things get exponentially worse the next night when she goes to get her meds and gets a look at the new orderly (Joshua Leonard) dispensing them. The name tag says George Shaw but she knows him as David Strine, a man she met when she did hospice work for his dying father back in Boston a couple of years earlier and who then began stalking her when she rebutfed his attentions. This is what inspired her sudden relocation to Pennsylvania and her general skittishness—even when taking all the precautions laid out for her by a security expert (Superstar Cameo Alert), she has continued to feel his presence wherever she goes. Now the cause of all her fears not only knows where she is but is giving her medication. Unfortunately for her, her terrified and angry reaction to his presence only makes her seem more genuinely disturbed to those in charge. Of course, there is also the possibility that David’s presence is something that her currently overtaxed system has cooked up as a result of her current situation.

This is all kind of silly from a dramatic standpoint and I must confess that I have no idea what might have inspired Soderbergh to pick up the script by Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer, whose past collaborations have included such deathless classics as “Max Keeble’s Big Move,” “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector” and “The Spy Next Door,” and think “This is the one for me.” The story is clever without ever becoming smart and it really does feel at times like a higher-rent version of those preposterous women-in-danger TV movies that make up a good chunk of the programming on Lifetime during a typical broadcast day. Obviously, it is a much better made film than one of those but the increasing ludicrousness of the material as things progress becomes difficult to ignore after a while. The screenplay has some good ideas here and there but is more likely to discard them than make good use of them—the question of whether David is real or a figment of Sawyer’s overwhelmed mindset is answered surprisingly early, causing a good amount of the inherent intention of the material to disappear. On some basic fundamental level, I suppose that the story does indeed “work” but good luck to anyone attempting to recall any of the key details the morning after watching it.

As for the notion of shooting a film with an iPhone, which may well have been his driving force for doing it in the first place, Soderbergh (who once again serves as his own cinematographer under the name “Peter Andrews”) gets mixed results. The comparatively limited space and perspective offered by the iPhone proves to be a good match for the material in the way it helps place viewers directly in Sawyer’s particular mindset. Once she is locked away, the limited palette, at least in comparison to typical film equipment, works well in capturing the dingy surroundings of the hidden corridors of Highland Creek and the quick and occasionally jerky movements add an additional level of dread to the proceedings. However, during the final scenes of the film where the big action beats finally come into play, the limitations of using an iPhone are brought into focus and there are big chunks where it is oftentimes difficult to discern what is actually happening on the screen. “Unsane” certainly proves that one can indeed shoot an overtly straightforward feature film aimed primarily at the broad commercial marketplace, though it doesn’t quite make the argument as to why one should bother to if they have the ability to shoot with more conventional methods.

Despite all these problems, “Unsane” still has a number of elements of interest going for it. For starters, the idea of a film centered around a woman trying desperately to make her voice heard about the dangers she is facing in a world that seems to be going out of its way to either ignore her, muzzle her or write her off as crazy is one that will no doubt resonate to a much stronger degree than it might have if it had come out at this time last year. At the same time, Soderbergh’s direction has the same kind of loose and offhand feel that helped elevate the strangely underrated “Logan Lucky”—instead of overtly fetishizing the B-movie underpinnings, Soderbergh takes a page from the likes of Sam Fuller by using the relative freedom that comes with a low budget and lower expectations by finding a interesting balance between overt commercial concerns and the more personal thematic and stylistic ideas that are clearly of more interest to him. Most of all, it has a splendid central performance by Claire Foy as Sawyer. Having not seen things like “Wolf Hall” and “The Crown” on television and bearing only trace memories of such films as “Season of the Witch,” “Vampire Academy” and “Breathe,” I cannot say that I am overly familiar with her past work but she is a knockout here in the way that she make Sawyer into an entirely sympathetic character without ever losing touch with the brittle and no-nonsense attitude that she demonstrates in the early scenes. There is one extended sequence late in the film where she confronts her central demon in a padded room done up in a bizarre shade of blue and verbally turns the tables around that is pretty much a master class in the art of acting and while it probably won’t lead to awards and such, it will stick in the mind for a long time afterwards.

“Unsane” is not a great film by any means and when the films of Steven Soderbergh are eventually ranked, it will probably not score that high, though that says more about Soderbergh’s extraordinarily high batting average than its inherent qualities. Despite its flaws, however, it still works to some degree thanks to the combination of his skills as a filmmaker and the undeniable talents of Foy. If it isn’t a major Soderbergh opus by any means, it will certain do until the next one eventually does come along. All I can hope is that when he gets around to making that film, he remembers to leave his phone at home.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31818&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/22/18 10:44:35
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User Comments

6/01/18 Langano Drags a bit in places but pretty good. 3 stars
4/01/18 the truth This movie looks like ass. "Not a great film", but Pete gave it a 4???? 1 stars
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  23-Mar-2018 (R)
  DVD: 19-Jun-2018


  DVD: 19-Jun-2018

Directed by
  Steven Soderbergh

Written by
  James Greer

  Claire Foy
  Juno Temple
  Aimee Mullins
  Amy Irving
  Jay Pharoah
  Joshua Leonard

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