Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is the latest in his extraordinary body of work since “returning” to cinema – an emergent post-cinematic opus that already contains his telemovie, Behind the Candelabra, two seasons of his television series The Knick, his interactive television event Mosaic, and a solitary, stand-alone film, Logan Lucky, that plays as an allegory for the market forces and changes in media that have led to this most recent flourish in his career in the first place. Watching his recent releases has been like witnessing a director tentatively brokering a new relationship with cinema after finally conceding, once and for all, that it has lost its medial hegemony, even or especially as Soderbergh’s aesthetic always felt like something of a foreshadowing of this particular moment, resulting in continuities between his late and early work that are every bit as surprising as the departures and divergences. The latest moment in that experimental evolution is Unsane, a psychological thriller shot exclusively on an iPhone 7 Plus, and a work of breathtaking ambition and mercurial beauty.
Part of the genius of Unsane lies in how perfectly Soderbergh’s approach “fits” Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script, which revolves around Sawyer Valentini, a businesswoman in her mid-thirties who moves from Boston to an unspecified American city to escape a stalker. Once there, however, she finds herself seeing her stalker everywhere, and continuing to experience feelings of persecution, panic and paranoia. To that end, she books a session at the nearby Highland Creek Behaviour Centre, only to find herself involuntarily committed after confessing that she sometimes loses the will to go on, in what turns out to be a health insurance scam. The good news is that she’s only likely to be committed for as long as her provider will pay, which is generally about a week, but things quickly take a turn for the worst when she recognises – or thinks she recognises – her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), in the form of one of the doctors at the institution. Throughout this ordeal, Sawyer depends on two allies – her mother Angela, played by Amy Irving, who arrives from Boston to try and put pressure on the institution to release her, and a fellow inmate, Nate, played by Jay Pharoah, who first informs her of the insurance scam, and in fact turns out to be an undercover reporter trying to bring it to the public’s attention.
What ensues plays out as a prison film as much as a psychothriller, as Sawyer tries to escape in every way she can, only to find that the conditions of her confinement turn her symptoms into a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading her to become more paranoid and volatile at every turn. After all, for someone who thinks they see their stalker everywhere, being kept in for sustained “observation” is about the worst possible scenario, especially if the stalker seems to be the person doing the observing, and as the film proceeds Soderbergh builds a trenchant critique of the way in which the pharmaceutical and private health industries in America perpetuate the very conditions that they claim to be treating and assuaging. Stranded in the midst of a healthcare system, and confronted with a situation in which sanity is defined in terms of surveillance, Sawyer quickly finds it necessary to reject the paradigms of sanity and insanity altogether merely to elude the continuous threat of surveillance, resulting in a series of performances – some of sanity, some of insanity – that split the different between the two extremes to produce what the film describes as “unsanity,” a condition that refuses to conform to the terms prescribed by this institution.
As a story, that in itself would already make for a powerful and immersive film. Yet what makes Unsane so extraordinary is the way in which it pairs this narrative approach with iPhone cinematography, as Soderbergh uses the peculiar constrictions and liberations of his camera to evoke this condition of unsanity in ways that a conventional cinematography never could. While I’ve described the plot here in some detail, then, that plot description is in itself perhaps more attuned to the coordinates of a conventional camera, since from the very outset Soderbergh’s iPhone imbues this narrative scheme with a pervasive sense of generality, anonymity and vacancy, in which even the most specific or distinctive features of the film never quite dissociate themselves from the audiovisual totality of the camera’s gaze. In some ways, that process is allegorised by way of Sawyer’s transition from Boston to the new and amorphous city in which she now resides – a city that is entirely shorn of anything in the way of local or specific flavour, just as every individual space that we glimpse within that city feels as impersonal and empty as the drab office space in which Sawyer first thinks she’s resighted her stalker. At times, it is as if Soderbergh’s recourse to an iPhone has created a radically egalitarian orientation to space and story, with the presumed proliferation of iPhones throughout the world he’s depicting divesting Sawyer’s situation of any real specificity, and instead subsuming it back into a broader network of observation.
Of course, that network is precisely what makes Sawyer feel so unsafe in the first place, since it quickly becomes clear that it’s not merely her stalker that she fears, but the possibility of stalking – and the new orientation to space that it produces – that he has foisted upon her. While she may occasionally “see” him in the faces of people that she passes on the street, or even men that she takes home to her house, he’s always there somewhere, especially in the most anonymous and vacant spaces, spaces that might once have guaranteed her a clear or stable sight line, but which are now suffused with a new kind of vulnerability and fragility. In part, that’s because Sawyer’s stalker is also a reminder of the redundancy and impotence of physical space in a world in which digital environments have taken over our daily lives, with most of his really intrusive moments stemming from his incursion into her iPhone, and his infection of her iPhone with his digital presence. While Swayer might have hired a stalker manager in Boston, played by Matt Damon in a brief cameo, his ability to help her is limited, just because his advice is to relinquish social media altogether as a form of control – “think of your cell phone as your enemy” – and to instead focus on doubling down on physical lines of defence: making sure that she always returns home using a well-lit access point, making sure that she always keeps her keys in her hand, making sure she always keeps the windows shut tight, and making sure to get off Facebook.
So insidious is Sawyer’s stalker, however, that he effectively becomes conflated with digital media itself, meaning that even the most tangential or tendential association with digital media is enough to invoke him and empower him, and that only the most radical recourse to physical space is enough to preclude him from entering her life again. Unfortunately, for Sawyer, the only way to achieve the latter is to retreat from society altogether, a scenario that Strine has already co-opted anyway, with the final scenes of the film detailing his “future” for them, which involves moving to his remote cabin in the woods, where he plans to establish a rustic lifestyle, while possibly refurbishing an old, out-of-the-way diner. It’s no coincidence, either, that the film begins with a monologue from Strine’s perspective describing how pervasively he associates Sawyer with the blue tones of the woods, since from the moment she arrives in the institution it becomes clear that he not is not only somewhat coterminous with digital media but that, like digital media, his power comes from insisting upon the redundancy and vacancy of physical space, and imprisoning Sawyer within it so that she has no other point of mediation except for his own desires and plans.
In other words, while Sawyer’s stalker manager recommends that she revert to physical space and relinquish digital space, Strine’s own strategy of containment is simply an intensified version of this process, as he contrives a situation in which Sawyer is deprived of her phone upon entering the institution, and is therefore required to channel all the energy previously reserved for her phone – for using her phone to avoid him – into her relationship with him. As might be expected, that creates an enormous sense of reflexive impotence, with Soderbergh focusing, especially, on the impotence of physical space in the face of a digital media regime that has utterly superseded it. That same impotence is embedded in the very form of the film itself, since while Sawyer might be struggling to elude the gaze of a stalker who has become continuous with the iPhone itself as synecdoche for social media, her entire experience is being shot and recorded on an iPhone. As much as they might sympathise with Sawyer, then, Soderbergh’s images are more viscerally and primally aligned with her stalker, just as the stalker is primally aligned with the iPhone as an object, creating something tantamount to a vision of the world from the perspective of the iPhone as an institution and social optic, along with its odd implications for autonomy within that world.
It’s at this point that the institution itself really comes into its own, dovetailing with the institution of the iPhone to produce a space in which physical space has been entirely divested of any agency or possibility, and in which time and space ramify in an almost unbearably suffocating and debilitating way. Ironically, that brings the film close to a more analog model of duration that has been superseded by digital technology, just as the expansion of the iPhone frame to the coordinates of a cinematic screen produces a granularity that cuts against the clinical crispness of the Apple aesthetic to produce something closer to a New Hollywood haziness, or at least a B-version of New Hollywood haziness, with Brian De Palma’s Sisters often coming to mind. Yet those gestures towards the past just make the remediation of that past all the more unsettling, as the “ambience” of an older brand of analog cinema gives way to a more stultifying sense of redundancy here, and a departure from the naturalism that this particular mode of ambience once served. In Unsane, by contrast, any claim to naturalism is replaced with a more functional and bureaucratic aesthetic, in which most of the dialogue either takes the form of some pronouncement or announcement, or otherwise falls back upon a hysterical atonality for the more interpersonal moments, with Claire Foy doing very little to hide her British accent.
Visually, too, there’s something ineradicably functional about the camera’s address here, even or especially as the constrictions of this particular medium require Soderbergh to be even more ingenious when it comes to composition and shot construction. Often, the camera seems to be “installed” in the spaces it is describing, not unlike an older form of surveillance camera, but its position is never quite stable or static enough to suggest that it is tethered to any one single space either, instead evoking a combination of surveillance with what Steve Mann has described as sousveillance – surveillance from below, or beside – to create an atmosphere of overwhelming observation in which it is nevertheless impossible to distinguish or discern one source of observation. No surprise, then, that patients, doctors, nurses and administrators all quickly coalesce into the amorphous gaze of the “institution,” nor that this approach is most beautifully and eerily evident in the reception and waiting room of the institution. In many ways, this is the most redundant space in the film, promising one narrative resolution after another that never goes anywhere, and existing simply to insist upon the redundant physical space that the institution manipulates for its own agenda, since it could never survive if its patients had full access to their digital selves.
It’s in and around this space that the full and provocative critique of the film becomes clear, as Soderbergh’s direction not only suggests that digital space has rendered physical space redundant, but that digital space requires the spectacle of redundant physical space as a demonstration of its powers, and as way of sequestering and sublimating the conditions of its own production. To that end, Soderbergh ultimately promulgates something of an anti-aesthetic here, finding one incredible way after another to insist upon the drabness and dourness of the spaces his camera touches, as well as the drabness and dourness of cinematic space as it is conceived and represented within this institution, which works largely by sequestering its patients from their digital lives into a series of more archaic and analog tableaux in order manipulate them for its own financial and practical gain. Whereas some directors have tried to use the iPhone as an approximation for the camera screen, Soderbergh here revels in the iPhone’s inability to capture the phantasmatic cinematic “omniscience” or “objectivity” of space, producing a series of compositions in which the point of focus is always just a little too foregrounded or prominent, creating vast reservoirs of space in the background or foreground. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to an older deep focus aesthetic, or a more “fisheye” telescoping effect, except that the point here doesn’t seem to be to amplify the space as a source of sentience or significance so much as to suggest just how drastically the iPhone needs to disable it in order to even command it in the first place.
The result is Soderbergh’s most Kafkaesque film since, well, Kafka, as well as a film that feels like a form of testimony as much as a fictional narrative – testimony to the proclivities of the iPhone, or even an iPhone testifying to itself, which is here equated with the solipsistic self-address of the instutition, and the endless scenes in which characters speak straight into the camera, as if sending a SnapChat message or uploading an Instagram story. At times, that almost produces the sense of watching a video game, especially in the stunning final sequence in which Sawyer has to try one corridor and locked door after another upon escaping from Strine’s grip, but the effect isn’t exactly of an “adaptation” of video game aesthetics either. Instead, the inherent gameficiation of social media enters the film, indirectly, by virtue of its very mediation through the iPhone, with much of the drama centering on Sawyer’s uncertainty of just how and when to play it as a game, as well as how to beat the insurance scam at its own game. It’s the same ludic impulse that informs Soderbergh’s Mosaic, an interactive television series that allows viewers to research the plot and see it from different perspectives. Here, as there, however, the originality of Soderbergh’s vision also lies in his sense of what can’t be changed, or what digital culture won’t change, with Mosaic building its narrative experimentation upon a deeper narrative inflexibility – you can’t change the core story – much as Unsane builds its gamified outlook on an insistence on the inflexibility and impotence of the physical spatality that subtends it.
Taken in combination, then, Unsane and Mosaic suggest that digital culture has to insist upon certain areas and narratives of inflexibility in order to affirm its own flexibility, with narrative and physical space coming to mean much the same thing as both releases proceed. By the end of both, that produces an almost interminable sense of space and time, and imbues physical space with an inherent blandness and drabness that makes the few bursts of colour so unusual and striking that they almost play as glitches or distortions across Soderbergh’s mise-en-scene. As the personification of the very device Soderbergh is using to mediate this narrative, then, it’s perhaps appropriate that Strine’s elaborate and flexible fantasies are based on a fairly inflexible and conservative set of values and assumptions – he basically wants to retreat to the woods with Sawyer and seek a more “traditional” lifestyle – and while you could never describe Soderbergh as conservative, his scepticism about digital media, and the curiosity that that scepticism enables, is possibly the most enduring and evocative part of Unsane too, one of the very best releases of his career.