Thursday 29 March 2018
Frightless of Seeing
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
UK cinema release print.
Warning: A slight spoiler in that I tell
you what doesn’t happen at the end.
Okay... so here we have a new Soderbergh movie. I quite like Soderbergh, for the most part. Been following him off and on since he hit big with Sex, Lies and Videotape back in 1989 and I still think his great masterpiece was The Limey. However, he does do some stupid stuff on occasion... I’ve not seen his version of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, for example (although I am getting more curious about it as the years go by) but I honestly don’t know why anyone would think they could make a better film than the great Andre Tarkovsky’s ‘beyond brilliant’ adaptation of it. Still, whenever I can stop seeing red about that artistic choice, I have to admit that Soderbergh is one of the more interesting and chameleon like of modern Hollywood directors.
Unsane is somehow being touted as Soderbergh’s first horror movie and I’m really glad I didn’t know that before going to see it because, frankly, it would have made me angry as it’s in absolutely no way, shape or form a horror movie. People seem to have forgotten what the words ‘psychological thriller’ mean these days but that’s exactly what this is... with he emphasis on psychological.
Now, Unsane is a bit of a hard one for me to talk about because, on the one hand, it’s brilliantly put together by the director, has great performances by the likes of Claire Foy as main protagonist Valentine Sawyer and Amy Irving as her mum but... well... it’s a bit of a let down in some ways. It’s like the whole movie comes together so well but the writers forgot to create an engaging or noteworthy story.
The plot set up as it is, is of a woman who is being stalked long term by an unwanted suitor and who accidentally ends up voluntarily committing herself to a mental hospital, only to find her stalker has followed her and gotten a job there to be close to her. All the way through this I was pretty sure I knew what the end twist of the film was going to be. Even when I first saw the trailer I was convinced that Claire Foy was going to turn out to be the man she thinks is stalking her and that s/he was sitting in a sanatarium projecting his own fantasies onto his immediate reality. Well... one of the most positive things I can say about this movie is that this is not the twist that happens at the end of this film. Instead though... there is no twist. Which is a bit of a let down.
For the most part, everything you see in the film is pretty much to be taken at face value. The only slight sting in the tale, if you want to call it that, is a quick epilogue where the long term effects of the story content on the central character are shown. However, as it happens, that was one of my favourite moments in the film so, although the disappointment that there was no clever spin at the end of the film was palpable, it was tempered by the fact that I did quite like the closing moments because it was stylistically very close to the kind of mood I felt the director was trying to portray in the rest of the film.
And by that I mean that, even though this movie is firmly set in the present... with cell phones, modern TVs etc... the style of this movie is definitely projecting back about 45 years in the past.
The whole thing was shot on an iPhone but it doesn’t look like it has been and the actual framing on it seems closer to a 4:3 ratio than anything else (at least as they showed it at my cinema). However, the whole thing is cut together as if it’s a Brian De Palma or David Cronenberg movie... if they had been shooting something to go on North Canadian TV in the early 1970s. That’s the kind of vibe I’m guessing Soderbergh was after here and, therefore, it certainly made sense that he would cast someone like Amy Irving in a role here.
Since the film is set in a mental hospital and is filled with the kind of stereotypes you meet there, it makes sense that the director chose this ratio and he seems to be deliberately using a lot of close-ups of people in those frames because it helps give it a claustrophobic look to things. Walls and people crowd in and loom large on the giant screen in front of you and you often get a feeling that the rooms are closing in on you. It’s also a natural symptom of framing two or more people within the same small space so... like I said, the choice of aspect ratio made a lot of sense.
He also tends to add a lot of layers of depth to the shots. In addition to a lot of verticals, you often get set ups where information from other levels of the shot are also clamouring for attention... through a window behind the main action, for eample, or through a doorway off to the right somewhere. This kind of opens up the screen space in an unusual arrangement, rather than make use of a widescreen canvass and it serves him well in giving the film an unusual visual identity.
There’s also an especially nice sequence in the film where Sawyer is slipped a psychotropic drug which completely interferes with her head and Soderbergh presents this as a kind of double exposure POV shot of both her face and the back of her head as she runs around an empty room while the faces of the other inmates look on at her through a window. It’s nice stuff like this that keeps the movie alive and interesting to watch.
As is the writer’s tactic of withholding key information until later in the film...
At the start of the movie we are 'filled in' by Sawyer that she is being stalked and that she tends to see her antagonist everywhere. We even have an ‘almost’ sexual encounter with a random stranger to highlight the full effect of this unseen presence but nothing tangible is really given to the audience and so, when the character ‘accidentally’ has herself committed, there is a lot of uncertainty in the minds of the audience as to whether she does actually deserve to be in this institution or not. The director uses this vibe to coast through the first part of the movie before we are filled in, during a flashback sequence, on the identity and history of her stalker. At which point, in some ways, it becomes a much less interesting story arc, to be honest.
Ultimately, Unsane never fails to grab attention and the final shot perfectly sums up 1970s TV in a way... while still, almost blatantly recalling the last shot of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, to some extent. Then we get some end credits music playing while some extremely fast rolling titles are superimposed on the final shot of the film and the combination captures the mood wonderfully. However, as I said before, the ending is also a real let down when it comes to showing us something we haven’t seen before and it’s almost like the director was exceeding some kind of brief to seem somehow much duller than the time period films he was, in some sense, imitating. So, a good time at the cinema if you are into looking at the whole way the thing was put together but, in terms of an exciting storyline... no, it didn’t quite make it for this particular cinema goer I’m afraid. Probably not one I’d recommend.