Thu, 05 Apr 2018
Running time 1hr 38min
PERHAPS you can have too much of a good thing. Had indie pioneer Steven Soderbergh called it quits in 1998, he’d at least be remembered for 1989’s near-perfect Sex, Lies, and Videotape; had he stuck to his pledge to retire in 2013, he’d have inherited a well-earned reputation as an ambitious, flawed auteur, his radical vision attested to in a string of minor critical hits (Che, Magic Mike, The Girlfriend Experience). Alas, here we are in 2018, facing up to the release of a new Soderbergh project with an overwhelming sense of perturbation and, it must be said, weariness.
The director’s career of late appears to have been possessed of a certain melancholia, a poorly-concealed pining for his turn-of-the-century heyday – last year’s (passable) Logan Lucky marked his return to the heist-thriller, being a sort of clodhopper Ocean’s Eleven. In purely thematic terms, Unsane retreads ground even more familiar to Soderbergh; while 2013’s Side Effects was his most eminently watchable foray into adult-oriented psychodrama, lest we forget that he already touched upon this subject matter in 1991’s Kafka and 1996’s Schizopolis (the latter should be sought out at one’s own peril). Regrettably, whereas Logan Lucky had an intriguing hook, Unsane is a most careless, uninvolved exercise; ludicrous as the comparison may seem, the viewing experience recalls Gore Verbinski’s defective A Cure For Wellness in its pacing and conceit, though it lacks even that movie’s visual dynamism and surrealistic edge.
Unsane’s hackneyed title more than hints at the blandfest to come. Soderbergh has always revelled in straddling the line between too-cool-for-school indie grit and multiplex credibility (rehashing Tarkovsky’s impenetrable Solaris for Western audiences; casting Channing Tatum as a male stripper), yet I can’t help but feel he’s selling himself rather short here, juggling such ill-understood hot potatoes as (gasp) Big Pharma and psychiatry. Claire Foy plays Sawyer, a woman who, fleeing a terrifying stalker, has been consigned against her will to a mental health facility. You’d trust a storytelling force of Soderbergh’s calibre to have many smart, insidious things to say on this front; gallingly, while Unsane IS watchable (due in no small part to Foy’s highly-dedicated performance, and to a few subtle moments of technical mastery), it piles on the tropes like noodle portions at a dodgy Chinatown buffet. With the (apparent) resurfacing of Sawyer’s stalker, the film ultimately comes to resemble a hurried, muddled mashup of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Michael Haneke’s Caché; its realisation of the hospital as (you guessed it) a cold, Kafkaesque night-terror is, above all, unspeakably derivative, totally failing to elicit the harrowing effect of the psycho-classics Soderbergh’s clearly been binging on.
The movie is shot entirely with iPhones – an intriguing setup, certainly, but quite a bit less genuinely novel than you might initially be led to believe (Sundance-watchers will have fond memories of 2015’s Tangerine, which already called dibs on this nifty selling point). Unsane can be gripping when it wants to be – like virtually all of Soderbergh’s recent misadventures, it packs in an impeccable cast (including a Matt Damon cameo). More often in evidence, however, is material bound to validate an old truism concerning the veteran filmmaker’s long, varied career. When Soderbergh is on fire, he’s simply unbeatable as a director; if he’s only partially invested in a script, mediocrity will prevail, no matter the effort of the central players (Foy is, frankly, outstanding, though she’s wasting her time here).