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‘Unsane’ in the brain

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Remember when Steven Soderbergh said he wasn’t going to make movies anymore?

It’s not like any of us really believed him, but it was still something of a relief when he came back to the cinematic well. Not that his TV stuff wasn’t interesting – it was – but Soderbergh belongs on the big screen.

He came back last year with the quirky, charming heist of “Logan Lucky” – his first feature since 2013. But if you expected him to do what was, well … expected, then you clearly haven’t been paying attention.

Soderbergh’s latest is “Unsane,” an elevated B-movie of a thriller that the director decided to shoot on an iPhone, because he’s Steven Soderbergh and he does what he wants. But what could have felt like gimmickry actually played out in such a fashion as to render that choice as more than a mere stunt. Add in his typical wholehearted embrace of genre, and you get a movie that, while flawed, is both tense and intense.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, TV’s “The Crown”) has what seems at first glance to be a pretty normal life. She’s got a good job, a nice apartment and she calls her mother at lunchtime. But it isn’t long before we start to see cracks in the placid veneer. She’s emotionally shut down and a little paranoid, subject to wild decisions and emotional swings.

It turns out that her anxiety springs from having been stalked. It’s the reason she’s in a new place with a new job – she’s fleeing the man who made her life hell. But the stresses mount to the point where she seeks help at a local mental health facility, where she inadvertently signs admission papers to voluntarily commit herself. She protests, but it too late – she’s in.

It only gets worse when she starts seeing her stalker everywhere – or does she?

The rigors of commitment wear on her badly; her only ally is fellow patient Nate (Jay Pharoah, TV’s “White Famous”), but even he has secrets of his own. Everyone – the doctors, the administrators, the patients – has murky motivations; it’s up to Sawyer to fight through it all and determine once and for all what is real.

“Unsane” is trashy, but upscale trashy – it’s like Soderbergh and company have taken the B-movie pulp of this premise and made it the best version of itself. There are some holes, some moments that strain credulity, but really, isn’t that the point of a movie like this? The thrills it gives are broad and base, unafraid to turn any of these many dials all the way to 11 at any given moment.

For the most part, it works. It might stumble into predictability at times, but every once in a while, it’ll throw you for a loop. That mix is what makes “Unsane” far more fun than it really has any right to be.

Filming on an iPhone might feel like some sort of statement for statement’s sake, but it actually works pretty well in this context. It lends a stripped-down and spare quality to the aesthetic; it feels raw in a way that suits this story nicely. The tight, close shots – already a Soderbergh specialty – are lent additional impact. It doesn’t all click – there’s a jitteriness to some sequences and good wide shots are tough to come by – but when it does, it really does.

Of course, Soderbergh can play all the tricks he wants – if the lead can’t carry the load, this movie is in trouble. Foy proves more than up for the challenge, offering up an exceptional performance. She throws herself into this to an astonishing degree, going from sullen to histrionic to defiant with nary a blink. It’s not a particularly nuanced turn, but this is the rare circumstance where subtlety is only going to hurt you.

The supporting cast has some standouts. Pharoah is very good; turns out he’s much more than a funny guy. He makes good on this opportunity to stretch. We meet Sawyer’s stalker David (Joshua Leonard, TV’s “StartUp”) in flashback, seeing him when she does – Leonard finds this wonderful flatness that decidedly unsettles. Amy Irving and Juno Temple show up as Sawyer’s mom and fellow patient, respectively – both are strong presences in relatively small parts.

“Unsane” isn’t first-tier Soderbergh. It’s probably not even second-tier. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good movie; it just depends on how you define “good.” His genre experiments aren’t going to be for everyone; that’s particularly true for this one. There’s a lo-fi luridness to it that some people aren’t going to dig.

But the people who dig it can expect some cheap thrills whose perceived cheapness was achieved at great effort. “Unsane” might be a weird experiment, but it’s a weird experiment that proves largely successful.

[4 out of 5]

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