Sunday, April 29, 2018

Review: UNSANE

A male voice speaks to a woman of his admiration for her as we track slowly through an eerie midnight forest. With context silent we jump to a young woman several times smart: dressed for the office, sharp-minded and sarcastic as she icily devastates a client on the phone. Dismissing a colleague who has been listening we see her roll her chair to follow a man who has just walked through the office. Then she has a meeting with the boss who praises her work on a report before getting subtly sleazy with an invitation to join him at a conference. She heads off to an app date after work, lets him know that she's after a strict one nighter. They pash back at her place before she emotionally collapses, horrified at herself, and finds a place to hide as her bemused beau exits. The next day she goes to an interview about joining a victims of stalkers group which leaves her talking to herself in a reception area before handing a form in which results in her examination and incarceration in a mental health facility. I ran all that together as that's how it goes past in less than twenty minutes of screen time. We've got to know her fairly well but now we're wondering. She's just voluntarily sectioned herself. Huh?

This is a film too easy to spoil so I'll stop there. There is a lot of plot here but more there is a theme at play and on the rise. The tale is about the constant tension between safety and trust and the slippery nature of our perceptions when we are deemed beyond making reliable observations. The result involves us doing a lot of guessing but then when the story settles on one of the possibilities it goes well past the point of the twist scene. Anyone who wanted to congratulate themselves on getting it before time then has to negotiate with a third act that devalues that feat. There's plenty to get through after that and it's all development.

Which is strange: this is a film that presents itself as a taut thriller - is she crazy, are they scamming the insurance, is there a massive and ugly gaslighting going on? - for most of the the running time starts stretching out the issues while the plot is getting faster. I've a strong hunch that anyone demanding a stylish but standard genre movie is going to judge the third act poorly but they shouldn't.

Claire Foy gives a character who can be very hard to love and chooses to go for comprehension over sympathy. During the phase in which her character Sawyer is plummeting into instability she uses the futility of the struggle to bring us closer, even though we're starting to get a little sniffy at her antics. Josh Leonard keeps us at bay in a way that we might just put it down to writing. It's a thankless turn but ... well, you'll see. Jay Pharoah's Nate, a kind of updated Sam Fuller mean-streets sage has a similar job to Leonard in that he must risk losing us between his warmth and undeclared purpose. My one gripe with the casting is that the always welcome Juno Temple gets so little screen time. Her character is important but at times when Sawyer was getting irritating I could have used much more Violet.

It's worth noting that the score makes such determined use of monotone. Whether it's a drone on the bowed basses or electronic, or a single piano note clanging over a sparsely moving bass figure we are given the music of claustrophobia and futility. Not a soundtrack album to bring out for a dinner party but a well judged approach to film music.

Steven Soderberg has had a long career being known for movies that sport a recognisable by line but resist auteurist description. A few years back he very publicly retired from the cinema in preference for the long form of pay tv but then quietly popped back in with Side Effects and Logan Lucky. Anyone following his career might have made a lot of that but to me it really just seems like him doing what he wants, having earned the clout to do so. From his indy breakthrough in the 80s, Sex, Lies and Videotape he was written up the same portentous way that similar figures like Hal Hartley were, as the quirky voices of the neonewhollywood. But where Hartley kept consistent for most of his initial career (haemorrhaging fans with the experimental Flirt) Soderberg went big budget and then small budget, whacko and then generic, epic and intimate, Panavision and video (he is famously his own cinematographer). And here with this frenetic thriller he's just doing some of that all over again and gives us an hour an a half of good stuff. I remember noting the phrase that he was shooting lighting setups that would look warm on film but on digital video look as flat and cold as an old Dogme movie, ugly but intetntionally so. I've since learned that he shot it with a modified i-Phone. The aspect ratio is reported (IMDB) as a very odd 1.56:1. That's our Stevie, always a step ahead. But really ... a step ahead.

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