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Film review: ‘Unsane’

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"Unsane" is not yet showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 1:38. Visit northbaymovies.com.

In a recent essay, the writer Tod Wodicka said the following about our modern age: “Your phone is basically a video game, an addictive horror role-playing game called 2018.”

In his new film “Unsane,” director Steven Soderbergh proves this claim correct in two ways. His protagonist Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) has PTSD from a stalker who attacked her first via her phone. And, instead of using standard equipment, Soderbergh films the horror game her life becomes on an iPhone.

We meet Sawyer as she starts a new life in a new town, far from family and, she hopes, the man against whom she has court orders. Still, she’s all bitten nails and half-eaten salads — washed out shots emphasize her physical frailty.

Seeking help from a professional, she meets a clinical psychologist at Highland Creek Behavioral Center and says something anyone might let slip offhandedly: “I’m not rational.” Before she realizes what’s happening, she’s stripped of her phone and her clothes and is involuntarily “voluntarily committed” to the hospital.

Among other things, “Unsane” is about the way in which, after you’re walking the dank hallways of a mental ward in a hospital gown, it’s very difficult to convince someone that you’re not a crazy person.

Sawyer is compelled to sleep next to Violet (Juno Temple) a troubled young woman with braids in her hair and a shiv in her waistband. She’s also in a room with the kind of guy you want to meet in an asylum, Nate (Jay Pharoah). He explains how seven-day lockups in such facilities are very lucrative for insurance companies — “They have a number to hit every month,” like a private prison’s constant need for customers.

Everywhere lurks the specter of Sawyer’s grotesquely-bearded stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard, a man whose look can only be described as “evil Zach Galifianakis”). He knows her favorite book and favorite song and, it seems, he knows she’s been incarcerated at Highland Creek, where he gets a job (under an assumed name) as an orderly.

The main question of the film is whether Strine invades the hospital or only Sawyer’s imagination (throughout the film, his face appears on the bodies of other men). Either way, it’s real enough to Sawyer, who is soon getting regular doses of lithium in her pill cup to control her violent outbursts.

Soderbergh has made American classics like “Out of Sight” and “Magic Mike” but is always restless for new adventures, retiring for a moment to work in television then returning for an experiment like “Unsane.”

The film is, at best, an intriguing misfire, a cheap B-movie homage. If Sean Baker proved that the iPhone can be used to make a film that looks as beautiful as “Tangerine,” Soderbergh proves that he can make a movie as ugly as a low-lit Snapchat.

The director’s camera absorbs the grey dinginess of the group room, the brown loneliness of the linoleum corridors and the blue inhumanity of a padded cell.

This makes for a visually unusual film, but “Unsane” lacks the scene-to-scene payoff that would be needed to make it anything more than a curiosity.

Its most profound sequence is a flashback, in which Sawyer is visited by a detective (an amusing bit of stunt casting) and told matter-of-factly how her life must change. She cannot enter her home via her garage or open Facebook and, it goes without saying, she should purchase a firearm.

"Unsane" is not yet showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 1:38. Visit northbaymovies.com.

To her rising panic the detective offers bestselling self-help literature: “The Gift of Fear.” The book is a state of mind we’ve all been given — its subtitle might well be: The American Experience in 2018.