In the most amusing scene in “Unsane,” Steven Soderbergh’s diabolically shrewd and spooky psychological thriller, a man advises a woman to delete her Facebook account. Not everyone in the audience, hopefully, will relate to the plight of the woman, Sawyer Valentini (“The Crown’s” Claire Foy), who is on the run from a dangerous stalker. But more than a few viewers will nonetheless chuckle in grim amusement and resolve to liquidate their own social-media profiles forthwith.
The reasons for that are surely coincidental. It’s unlikely that the screenwriters, Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, could have anticipated the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica, the British data-mining firm that raided the private information of more than 50-million Facebook users in order to help sway the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor. And in any case, “Unsane,” a twisty 21st-century gloss on women-in-mental-peril movies like “Gaslight” and “The Snake Pit,” is not exactly what you’d call political filmmaking.
Or is it? Soderbergh is one of the most dexterous directors working in the American mainstream, and he has a sly talent for lacing even a seemingly disposable genre offering with smart, incisive ideas. His recent features, with their working-class stories and sleek, efficient visuals, may not look like much on the surface, but even the least of them betray an uncanny, even unnerving accuracy about how we live.
Certainly there has always been a political dimension to Soderbergh’s means and methods behind the camera, especially of late. He has long been a sharp critic of the blockbuster overload that has turned big-studio filmmaking into more of an industrial enterprise than a creative one. And like other prominent defenders of the art, Jean-Luc Godard not least among them, he has channeled his criticism into his own playful brand of cinematic formalism, making movies that boldly resist the status quo.
After a happily short-lived retirement from feature filmmaking, Soderbergh reemerged last year with the glorious heist thriller “Logan Lucky,” an old-school Hollywood entertainment that was produced, marketed and distributed outside the usual Hollywood parameters. “Unsane,” an unapologetic shift into madhouse-of-horrors territory, doesn’t have “Logan Lucky’s” buoyancy or largeness of spirit. But it is no less the product of a uniquely democratic filmmaking sensibility.
Working under his well-worn pseudonyms (cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard), Soderbergh shot the movie entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus in ultra-crisp 4k digital resolution. He is hardly the first auteur to explore the uniquely expressive properties of smartphone camera technology, as Sean Baker did so memorably in “Tangerine.” In “Unsane,” the technique brings a terrifying immediacy to an unapologetically schlocky story, finding an unsettling visual language for Sawyer’s alienation and paranoia.
The hyper-real intensity of the image, with its wide-angle lenses and unnerving distortions of depth and perspective, provides an empathetic window into the mind of a woman suddenly forced to question her own reality. And the gliding mobility of the camera proves useful in tracking the long, menacing corridors of Highland Creek Behavioral Center, the Pennsylvania mental institution where Sawyer, after a routine visit with a counselor, finds herself involuntarily committed.
Is Sawyer the victim of bad luck, a vicious health-insurance scam or her own unraveling mind? The movie makes a persuasive case for the latter, at least initially. Before she makes the mistake of visiting Highland Creek, Sawyer is shown settling into a new job as a data analyst. She’s smart and efficient, if a bit high-strung, and her terse phone conversations with her mother (a warm Amy Irving) bespeak some deeper anxiety.
In time we learn that Sawyer has recently moved to Pennsylvania from Boston, where she got a restraining order against a man named David Strine who wouldn’t leave her alone. The experience has left her perpetually on edge, apt to see David’s face everywhere she looks and lash out violently in response.
And so it’s entirely possible that the presence of a disturbed, deranged individual in Sawyer’s life has left her disturbed and deranged in turn. Once she finds herself locked up, the screenplay cleverly weaponizes her every angry protest and desperate outburst against her, to the point where she seems less stable at times than some of the other patients. These include the volatile Violet (Juno Temple), who greets her by pelting her with a used tampon, and Nate (an excellent Jay Pharoah), a calming presence who imparts some crucial survival tips.
But easily the most unwelcome figure here is a large, hulking Highland Creek employee named George (Joshua Leonard), who is, in Sawyer’s view, the spitting image of David Strine. Is she telling the truth or simply hallucinating? Soderbergh delights in confusing the truth for a spell, particularly in a weird, frenzied sequence that plays like a psych-ward remix of Roman Polanski’s classic “Repulsion.” But its teasing twists and suggestive title aside, “Unsane” traffics in psychological ambiguity only up to a point.
His stories may feature their fair share of the subjective and the implausible, but at heart Soderbergh has always been a sympathetic realist, whether he’s pulling back the curtain on the strip-club fantasies of “Magic Mike” or hardening the edges of a real-life Cinderella story like “Erin Brockovich.” In “Unsane,” what lingers well beyond the jolting action scenes is the nightmarish banality of Highland Creek, with its dim, jaundiced lighting and its ugly office-window blinds. The filmmaker’s knack for casting is also apparent in some of the faces overseeing this institutional hell, including Polly McKie as a nurse who stops just short of going full Ratched.
But this is very much Foy’s movie, and if the role of a woman trapped and surrounded by crazies couldn’t feel farther removed from Queen Elizabeth II (or could it?), this superb English actress brings furious conviction to every agonizing moment of Sawyer’s journey. Foy’s walk on the wild side will continue with her upcoming performance as that avenging dark angel Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” — a fact that seems worth mentioning insofar as “Unsane” ultimately emerges, just in time for the rise of the #MeToo movement, as a dark cautionary tale about the dangers of mistreating and suppressing women.
Those themes achieve an apotheosis in an extraordinary climactic scene, an extended conversation between two people that becomes a thrilling study in the seizure, manipulation and reversal of power — physical, moral and sexual. I mentioned earlier that “Unsane” isn’t political filmmaking, an assessment that feels less accurate at every moment. It’s a movie with a little blood on its hands and a great deal more on its mind.
Rating: R, for disturbing behavior, violence, language and sex references
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: In general release