UNSANE is Steven Soderbergh’s Return to the Tacky Pulp He Lives for (Review)

Formally flawless and bursting at the seams with shaggy charisma, last year’s Logan Lucky perfectly articulated why the big screen missed Steven Soderbergh so much after only five years estranged therefrom. But as much fun as the filmmaker seems to have had strapping together the Channing Tatum-led heist comedy, it’s his next venture that really reeks of what Soderbergh seems to love about working in pictures. In fact, Unsane doesn’t simply mark Soderbergh’s return to a career we feared he may have left behind, but to the precise territory on which he founded his grandeur in the first place.

Few working directors are quite as versatile as Soderbergh, a fact that is paradoxically explained and made all the more astonishing by how prolific he is. But if you’re going to pinpoint any trademarks of Soderbergh authorship, you may default to grime and existential unrest—the sort plotted about his filmography from his debut picture Sex, Lies, and Videotape to his pre-hiatus send-off Side Effects, not to mention his short-lived small screen jaunt The Knick. This tradition rears itself again in Unsane, evoked from the very first shot of a washed-out, dog-tired Claire Foy.

Showcased as prominently as Foy’s disaffected mug is the lens through which she’s viewed: the unfiltered, unkempt, frankly disconcerting aesthetic of the iPhone 7 on which the film was shot. As present a character as any of the corporeal shapes that cross its eye-line, Soderbergh’s deliberately schlocky-looking camerawork transforms what might otherwise read as self-serious melodrama to the form it warrants and craves: delightfully askew, winningly tacky pulp.

After all, there’s no shortage of blemishes spotting the premise: that which finds Foy’s dread-riddled Sawyer Valentini (even her name feels indebted to Raymond Chandler!) unwittingly confined to observation at a psychiatric hospital, only to discover—or at least suspect—that the stalker (Joshua Leonard) she left behind in her hometown has taken a job on campus. Contrivances and quandaries fly across the screen in every direction as we grapple with Sawyer’s evermore vexing descent, both toward psychological implosion and physical doom, but are all caught swiftly and safely nestled by Unsane’s self-aware netting.

As commanding as Foy is throughout, it’s the cavalcade of character actors garnishing every dimly lit scene that elevate Unsane to heights of wicked fun: Jay Pharoah as a sympathetic fellow inmate; Juno Temple as a patient who has it out for Sawyer; hospital staff members played by Polly McKie and Zach Cherry, who, even with minimalistic roles, provide such color to every scene they occupy; a pair of irreverent cops (Michael Mihm and Robert Kelly) who come to inspect the ward and the receptionist (Lynda Mauze) they flirt and bicker with. And of course, the great Amy Irving as Sawyer’s concerned mom.

Even when Unsane goes too far—which it does, eventually abandoning any semblance of cantankerous glee in the name of all-out morbidity—its commitment to the muck leaves you in admiration, or at the very least understanding, of its every pulsating twitch. And in the lot, we see Soderbergh come to life; Unsane may not be as vibrant or formally impressive as Logan Lucky, but it’s all the more invigorated by the passions that put this filmmaker on our radar in the first place.

3.5 out of 5 burritos

Images: Bleecker Street/Fingerprint Releasing

M. Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find them on Twitter @micarbeiter.

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