Unsane: Steven Soderbergh's iPhone-shot thriller, starring Claire Foy, is a timely #MeToo warning

Meenakshi Shedde

Mar,11 2018 12:11:49 IST

Steven Soderbergh's Unsane had a sensational premiere at the 2018 Berlinale. It is a superb horror-thriller about a woman who is being stalked — all shot on an iPhone. She is played by Claire Foy, winner of the Golden Globe for Best Actress, for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix series The Crown. Joshua Leonard plays the stalker, who turns from quietly persistent to increasingly desperate as the plot progresses.

The film treads a fine line, as it assumes the point of view of the victim Sawyer Valentini, and we are never sure if she is telling the truth or the increasingly ugly incidents unfolding in her life are only figments of her paranoia. It opens with the voice-over of a man in love, addressing his sweetheart, and only gradually do we realise that it is the stalker David Strine addressing Valentini, the woman with whom he is obsessed. The film is a cautionary tale about how putting out personal information on social media is easy fodder for a predator, and Strine's obsession makes you realise how he knows minute details about Valentini's past, what she loves, and what she did when — presumably from her posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Claire Foy in a still from Unsane

Claire Foy in a still from Unsane

Valentini is a high flying, tough-as-nails data analyst, but her vulnerable core soon emerges; she is so terrified of her stalker that she not only ruins her Tinder date but she actually ends up moving cities from Boston to Pennsylvania. She gets advice from an expert — Matt Damon in a cameo — on how to strengthen her own security: he basically suggests she imprison herself in multiple ways, adding, "Think of your cell phone as your enemy." This is, of course, a hoot: while it certainly has elements of truth, the irony is delicious, coming in a film shot on an iPhone.

When Valentini goes for a counselling session at a healthcare facility, she suddenly finds herself locked in as a mentally unstable patient. The institution is keen to meet patient targets as part of a medical insurance racket. And horror of horrors, one of the male nurses is Strine, her stalker! (I'm sorry, but this was for me the equivalent of a Bollywood item number, bunged in to entertain, without any screenplay logic as to how he got there). Of course, no one believes her when she calls out her stalker, while Strine closes in on her like a boa constrictor.

It isn't helpful for Valentini's sanity to be locked up with other patients who are unhinged. When she reacts defensively, she is initially handcuffed to her bed, then Strine gives her knockout drugs. He then moves her to a solitary confinement cell where she is entirely at his mercy before he kidnaps her to lonely woods. Now there are full Bollywood-style kahani mein twists, but the climax packs a mean punch. Claire Foy devours her role with relish, see-sawing between toughness and vulnerability. Leonard is convincingly creepy; Jay Pharoah puts in a commendable performance as the sophisticated inmate Nate but sadly Juno Temple's role as Violet, another inmate is not so subtle and can seem like overacting.

Soderbergh has done the cinematography for a number of his own movies, including Side Effects and Traffic, under the name 'Peter Andrews,' using his father's first and middle names. Here shooting on an iPhone gives the thriller an urgency that befits it, and the distortion in close-ups and heightened, dark atmospherics of the loony bin interiors aid the story well. Soderbergh also often edits his own films, including Sex, Lies and Videotape and Logan Lucky, frequently under his mother's maiden name, Mary Ann Bernard. The taut screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer weaves in several key issues. The medical insurance racket, which incarcerates people against their will, is severely indicted. In some of its key themes, the film has a lot in common with Soderbergh's Side Effects, which also examined how a pharmaceutical corporation, fronted by a pliant doctor with a kindly face, exploited a mental health patient. Besides, the film is a nod to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with evil nurses and patients conspiring to escape a brutal system.

The film is also a cautionary tale on how casual personal posts on social media can become easy fodder for potential stalkers. Above all, the film powerfully feeds into the current #MeToo campaign: it empathises with the horrors women can experience when their claims of sexual harassment are disbelieved and dismissed because they cannot always provide legal evidence to back their claims. Soderbergh rips the covers off those smugly demanding evidence, underlining how the truth does not go away, merely due to lack of evidence. Soderbergh displays Mani Ratnam's talent for melding mainstream and indie elements with panache: here he proposes intelligent arguments and issues, while keeping it firmly in B-movie genre thriller territory, splashed with melodramatic jolts and twists.

This is approximately the 40th film Soderbergh has directed. Not only is he extremely prolific, but he has directed a mind-boggling range of films. For someone who who never went to film school, he has astonishing gifts. These range from his debut, breakout film, an intellectual skewering of middle-class American infidelity (Sex, Lies and Videotape, 1989, for which he won the Golden Palm at Cannes at age 26), to the rousing feminist paean Erin Brockovich (2000), to thrillers and crime capers, the Ocean's Eleven (2001) series, to the biopic Che (on Guevara, 2008), sobering dramas like the drug trade expose Traffic (Oscar, Best Director, 2000) and a thriller about big pharma and mental health (Side Effects, 2013), Solaris (the philosophical space drama earlier made by Andrei Tarkovsky, 2002), back to Logan Lucky (2017's crime caper), and Unsane in 2018. Soderbergh has repeatedly threatened retirement, and we fervently hope he doesn't, and that the producers, 20th Century Fox, will release Unsane in India soon.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals and independent curator to festivals worldwide

Published Date: Mar 11, 2018 12:11 PM | Updated Date: Mar 11, 2018 12:11 PM