“Think of your cellphone as your enemy,” a friend warns Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane. In horror movies and thrillers, disabling the characters’ cellphones has become a necessary ritual, but for Sawyer the perpetual connection to the world makes her vulnerable instead of safe. She’s being stalked by David Strine (Joshua Leonard), the son of a dying man she cared for in hospice, and every photo she’s tagged in is a means for him to track her down. Even after she’s torn up her life and moved hundreds of miles away, she still can’t break the link. She sees him in the face of the man she picks up at a bar, promising him strings-free sex but recoiling from his touch, retreating to the bathroom as he feebly sputters, “You initiated!” And when she goes to a therapist, admitting that her desperation has prompted thoughts of suicide, he’s there, too, waiting for her.
On that last point, at least, she’s entirely sane—not that it does her any good. The mental hospital where Sawyer goes for counseling pegs her as a danger to herself and others, and without knowing she’s doing it, she signs a form committing herself to an overnight stay; when she violently objects, it’s extended to a week, with every sign another week might follow that one, and another after that. Highland Creek Behavioral Center doesn’t look like a prison. Its brightly lit corridors stretch on for miles, but you can imagine the way out being just around the corner, if only you could choose the right one. The trouble is that David is around every corner as well. He’s insinuated himself into the hospital as he has into Sawyer’s mind, and though he’s only a night-shift orderly, he knows how to press her buttons, what to whisper in her ear, or let her catch a glimpse of—a letter, say, with her mother’s home address—to make her fly into a rage so he can step back and say she’s acting crazy again.
Unsane’s aim is to make you feel crazy, too. Soderbergh shot the movie on an iPhone 7 Plus, two generations past the 5S that Sean Baker used for Tangerine, but where Baker used the phone’s mobility to harness the edgy vibrancy of street photography, Soderbergh exploits its higher resolution to let it stay put, getting so close to Foy’s face you can almost see her pores sweat. Fisheye lenses make the walls close in around her, and when the camera does move it’s sometimes attached to her body, careening around the psych ward like it’s looking for a place to dry heave. Credited as Peter Andrews, Soderbergh has served as his own cinematographer for years, and often his own camera operator as well, and on a project like The Knick you could feel the intimacy and fluidity that came from practically serving as a one-person camera crew. (He’s also given to editing the day’s footage as soon as it’s shot. Last Thursday he announced that he had finished shooting the forthcoming High Flying Bird at a little after 1 p.m. and completed the first cut by quarter to 4.) But he also seems bored by his own virtuosity and impatient with the parts of filmmaking that don’t take place on a set. The Knick’s evocation of turn-of-the-19th-century New York was so precise you could almost taste it—and then regret having tasted it—but its scripts were hoary with the tortures of great men, and Unsane’s, by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, feels even more dashed off. (According to the film’s press notes, it was written in 10 days.)
In a film of more prepossessing style, the glaring leaps of logic might be easier to overlook, or at least there’d be more incentive to do so, but the cellphone is Soderbergh’s enemy as well. Unsane rests on the fantasy of a near-omniscient antagonist, one whose single-mindedness of purpose makes him almost impossible to outmaneuver, and it’s hard to square that with the idea that his master plan was to get himself hired at a mental hospital in Sawyer’s general vicinity and hope she’d someday check herself in. The other characters are barely sketched all: Juno Temple as a cornrowed, tampon-throwing redneck, Jay Pharoah as a kindly recovering addict, Amy Irving as Sawyer’s mother, Polly McKie as a Ratched-y nurse. Leonard, who often plays soft-faced nice guys, could have been an inspired choice for the role of a stalker, but the movie starts him off as a caricature and then keeps shaving him down from there. The benefit of working with such tiny cameras is that it lets us get close enough to Foy to see her think, both when her mind is playing tricks on her and when she’s using her wits to save her skin. But the movie denies her any subtext, any personality beyond the boundaries of her trauma. She’s a rat in a maze, and while we’re rooting for her to escape, we don’t have any idea what’s outside it.