Five years ago, Steven Soderbergh directed what he’d said would be his cinematic swan song. Side Effects, ostensibly about a woman who reacts quite poorly to some medication she was prescribed by a sweaty British doctor, was a nasty piece of work that featured one of Jude Law’s more underrated performances. If Side Effects was really Soderbergh’s last feature, it would’ve been a fine note on which to exit. Instead, last summer, the auteur returned with the goofy and charming Logan Lucky. His own luck has, temporarily, evaporated with Unsane, which is a highly idiotic inversion of Side Effects.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is trying to set up roots in a Pennsylvania town after moving from Boston: she has a new job, she meets guys at local bars for one-night stands. But Sawyer is haunted by memories of why she left Boston: a real creep named David (Joshua Leonard), whose predatory stalking drove her out. Sawyer can’t stop seeing David around her new office, her new apartment, and elsewhere, so she decides to speak to a counselor at a local mental-health facility. Unbeknownst to her until it’s too late, Sawyer inadvertently signs a form stating that she’s voluntarily committing herself for 24 hours; when she lashes out during that day-long period, doctors recommend her for a longer stay, even as Sawyer becomes convinced that David is one of the orderlies on duty.

The basic setup of Unsane — is Sawyer really seeing David at the facility or is she just going crazy? — could be compelling enough. But Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script feels especially, unnecessarily sadistic in its treatment of a trauma survivor whose abuse may be causing her to lose her mind. The stabs at making Sawyer a complex character only serve to trivialize her plight. Unsane is fairly compact, running just 98 minutes, but it doesn’t take nearly so long to confirm whether or not Sawyer really is seeing her stalker. On one hand, confirming Sawyer’s unreliability before too long allows the film to not be overly coy. However, that confirmation just highlights how overcooked and unfocused the script is. Soderbergh has, in Side Effects and Contagion, taken aim at capitalism and the American medical industry, but the attempts to do so here — even if Sawyer is nuts, the facility is cartoonishly corrupt — feel shoehorned-in and wasteful.

Of course, the story surrounding Unsane is that Steven Soderbergh shot this film on an iPhone 7 Plus. While Unsane isn’t the first indie feature shot on a smartphone — Sean Baker’s wonderful Tangerine was also shot on an iPhone — the movie never hides the fact that it was shot in the boxy fashion. Soderbergh does feature some striking visuals here and there — one brief scene where Sawyer has a violent reaction to a deliberately higher dosage of pills is suitably unnerving. There’s also an intense tete-a-tete heightened by the tangible sense of movement created each time that Soderbergh (as usual, serving as his own cinematographer and editor) moves the camera from one side of Sawyer’s body to the other. Unsane displays a guerilla style of filmmaking, but even with the iPhone, Soderbergh is able to construct some askew images.

Foy, known for her work on Netflix’s The Crown, does her best with a protagonist who starts out as callous and delves into being genuinely cruel by the film’s climax. (Not that a protagonist being unlikable and self-serving is a bad thing, but her choices regarding a fellow female inmate are inexplicably nasty.) But Foy’s American accent is an unavoidable hindrance, a sore thumb throughout her performance. Leonard’s character is a disgusting stalker who’s straight out of an overheated Lifetime Movie of the Week, which says more about the script than his believably gross performance. If there is a standout, just by rights of his effortless and naturalistic work, it’s Jay Pharaoh as a fellow inmate. His character — the guy who’s going to show our hero the ropes of this place full of crazies — is, again, very familiar, but Pharaoh exudes charm in his handful of scenes.

If only the writing was up to snuff. Maybe it’s because of the flashes of visual ingenuity in Unsane, or bits of charm, that the movie ends up feeling so repugnant. In the early going, Unsane feels like it wants to traffic in nightmare logic — Sawyer seems incapable of asking perfectly logical questions of the people running the facility, primarily because to ask them would be to create a more challenging screenplay. But by the second half, Unsane reveals itself as something more exploitative without being remotely thoughtful enough to earn that tonal shift. The film wants to be a takedown of the corporatized medical community, and also a depiction of internal madness, and also a horror film in which a belittled character gets to strike back. Steven Soderbergh likes to try a lot of new things as a filmmaker, and working with the iPhone is another innovative step. But his stylistic choices don’t pay off when the script is utterly nonsensical tripe.

/Film Rating: 2 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.