Saturday 24 March 2018

Compulsions: "Unsane"

Nurse, the screens: patient Soderbergh has relapsed again. Last summer's Logan Lucky suggested that Steven Soderbergh, that most hyperactive of movie imaginations, had returned from his so-called retirement refreshed, relaxed and possessed of a new-found willingness to spend a little extra time feeling out his characters, the better to push himself and the heist movie into cheering new territory. Since then, however, there have been worrying signs. First, Soderbergh signed off on a weirdly unengaging pilot for the HBO series Mosaic, a would-be puzzle piece that sought to draw in viewers with endless, glacial conversations about Park City property prices; then, in a Tweet posted earlier this month, he boasted about completing the first cut of his next-but-one project High Flying Bird a mere three hours after wrapping principal photography - as if a rush job were something to be flaunted and celebrated. (Perhaps only on Twitter, where speed is eternally of the essence, and nothing is built to last.)

Somewhere in the six months or so that sped by between comeback and self-congratulation, Soderbergh oversaw Unsane, an asylum movie shot in a week on an iPhone 7 Plus. Nothing in that last sentence - or, indeed, in the completed feature - contradicts the thought that, after briefly pausing to recharge his batteries, Soderbergh has returned to bashing these projects out, a pattern of behaviour that first emerged over the run of half-finished doodles the director began to trail behind him from the Noughties onwards (Full FrontalBubble, The Girlfriend Experience, dare I say even Magic Mike). Unsane is almost an object lesson in a filmmaker taking a workable premise - call-centre Everywoman (Claire Foy) reports to a mental health care facility to discuss fears about her stalker, only to wind up being detained herself, against her will - and then not only failing to develop it, but entirely bypassing whatever point it might have to make in his haste to play it out and get onto the next damn thing.

Soderbergh offers a whirlwind Girl, Interrupted-like sketch of this (oddly underpopulated) asylum's inhabitants - unisex dorms, for some reason; Juno Temple on hand in the Jolie role of hair-teasing jailbait; a sympathetic African-American patient (Jay Pharoah) suggesting our heroine's plight may have something to do with an insurance scam - before it's revealed, with no great elegance, that the doctor in charge (Joshua Leonard, survivor of The Blair Witch Project) is either our gal's stalker, or a dead ringer for same. The ground, in other words, has been laid for an especially subjective thriller, one that asks its audience to weigh how much of what we see is simply going on inside its fragile protagonist's head, and how much is happening for quote-unquote real. The iPhone's technical specs help to render everything in sight even more off-the-wall: the camera sits too close to people's noses, or ends up where conventional recording equipment couldn't go, and consequently opens up the background space in such a way as to expand the threat Foy appears to face.

The minute we clock this, however, the minute Unsane stands exposed as at best an experiment, at worst nothing more than a gimmick-movie, another instance where the material (a familiar scenario, provided by one of the five authors of 2006's Lindsay Lohan classic Just My Luck: yes, there's a sequence where a patient feigns swallowing her prescribed daily medication only to be seen regurgitating it at a later point) has become secondary to the desperate need of a restless director to film something, anything, and to impose himself upon it any which way he can. (Thus does any old crap get mistaken for auteurism.) The result displays that weird disconnect familiar from so many recent Soderbergh movies - that of seeing a compulsive imagemaker wilfully going against the grain of the screenplay he's taken on, and filming it as a technical-intellectual exercise, when it might have been better embraced as the pulp it clearly wants to be. What's the point of a padded Shock Corridor?

Instead, we get pulp with the edges artfully removed. The detached amusement on display extends to the casting of The Crown's Queen Liz (although the forceful Foy is by far the film's strongest suit, willing us to buy into the character's delusions - or reality), as it does to the drafting-in of Matt Damon to gabble some exposition as a passing expert in stalkerology, as it does to the holding-cell confrontation scene that's blocked like fringe theatre and subject to the lousiest sound recording of any studio release this season. Blame the equipment if you will, but Soderbergh's the one wielding it like a tourist, dashing through this location before the bus departs to carry him onto the next, a considered charge that might have proved perversely fascinating if the film weren't so forgettable at the end of its 100 minutes, raising questions forever more pertinent to him than they are to his characters or us. Some may argue that at this stage of his career, edging his way back in from the fringes, Soderbergh owes us nothing in particular - but he surely owes it to himself, and his legacy, to take a little more time between and during projects. Hustle on a little further down this path, and he risks becoming the Woody Allen only Film Twitter can abide.

Unsane is now playing in selected cinemas.   

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