When I wrote about Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky last year, the work with which he emerged from a dubious early retirement, I noted its copious pleasures, but also that it’s just what one would expect and what a fan would hope for as a follow-up to Soderbergh’s earlier Ocean’s trilogy successes. I didn’t, and don’t, mean this as a slur — it’s a work of formidable technical control, enlivening imagination and invention, bright perspicacity, fond and sparkling humour, and a brazenly circuitous and intelligent narrative sense, that I would happily watch again in its entirety at any time — but it’s a deepening and sharpening, an intensification, of an artistry already well established and assuredly proven, not the great step forward into the next phase of Soderbergh’s immensely promising career. It’s clear that films such as Ocean’s Twelve, Contagion, Side Effects, Behind the Candelabra, Magic Mike, and, now, Logan Lucky are a major achievement above that of, say, Soderbergh’s earliest, and still admirable, work, Sex, Lies and Videotape. But, to join the higher echelons of filmmakers throughout cinema’s history, a radical and elevating development of his artistry is required, which, in contemporary times, often means a radical shift in production methods and circumstances.
Of course, I don’t think this was the conscious purpose of the making of Soderbergh’s newest work, Unsane, but I’m very pleased to report that that exact change — in how and where and with what he makes the movie — has effected the desired development, or, at least, provided a very strong thrust in that direction. Unsane, which was filmed from a script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, was shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus, in 4K, using the app FiLMiC Pro; the film crew and production had been so effectively pared down that the budget is reported at only $1.5 million; and, as with Logan Lucky, Soderbergh released it through his own distribution company, the Fingerprint Releasing Banner. The film’s plot, which takes the form of a horror story or the pastiche of one, should probably be announced with a host of trigger warnings (for rape, stalking, mental illness, kidnapping, captivity, and murder), and, as I see it, is merely a vehicle for the creation of images, moods, and perceptions of the depicted world (and, hopefully, the real world as well). It stars Claire Foy, as a businesswoman dealing with the past trauma of being stalked, who, through an ostensible insurance scam and the screeching deviousness of a dishonest medical practice, finds herself forcibly contained in a psychiatric ward, first for 24 hours, then for a week, then who knows how long. This experience is horrifying enough, but she’s soon confronted once again by the presence of her stalker, and her ordeal descends into the tortuous endlessness of an infernal nightmare.
Yet, unlike, say, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the horrific story isn’t used to unfold real-life political views and philosophical ideas about the world; it takes experiences and ideas from contemporary political situations, such as the Hollywood-centric #MeToo movement, which is focused on the harrowing experiences of women who have been abused by men, and the bitter state of healthcare and related finances in America, and, of course, the increased concern for the widespread personal experiences of mental illness, but the story is not founded upon ideas or views regarding these various aspects. This, and the horror form in which it’s been devised, is taken as a mapped-out domain over which, in effect, an experiment has been conducted. For all the last century’s discussion of the differing Two Cultures of art and science, and all of this century’s shallower exponents abusing and degrading the idea and practice of both, the two correlate and intersect far more easily, more often, more surprisingly, more beneficially, and more nobly than is generally supposed. And an experiment by an engaging, curious, and perceptive mind is the way that both move forward in their various fields and forms.
I remember posting some time ago on Facebook that “experimental” art is often a misclassification, since any daring and original work is as much an experiment as it is an assertion. I hold to that, and aver that Soderbergh’s expedition — his enquiry into and demonstration of a new, hands-on, home-scale technology and process of filmmaking — is as much an assertion of his probing creativity as it is an experiment in production methods. My viewing companion noted the highly tactile immediacy and tangible presence of any subject of Soderbergh’s compositions; I’d add that not only did it seem like we were seeing the physical scene or real person right in front of us, but (to risk a mawkish cliché) it feels like we were really looking at it; we saw it in its place in the drama, in the world, for its loaded dramatic, emotional, and practical properties; as in the best of Soderbergh’s work, the performances seem to fold both inwards and outwards — there’s a sharp sense of the teeming inner life of Foy’s character, Sawyer, and illuminating hints at her various psychological states, emotional experiences, and physical sensations; yet she and each person she encounters also leave an indelible mark on the outer world, a mark of a unique identity and the will to establish it and, in the most avowed sense, of performing one’s part in the drama.
The excellent examples of Soderbergh’s films that I mentioned above often have a sharply aware reflexive quality as well, smartly hidden in plain sight, that bends the frame of the movies from the characters to the actual real-life people making the movie. The production is sometimes built right into the story. Take the Ocean’s trilogy, or Logan Lucky. They feature a daring and staggeringly intelligent leader, who hatches a plot to pull of something ridiculous, ostensibly for commercial objectives and financial gain, but, eventually, for the damn fun of it. There’re the various team members, each a dextrous expert in their field, whose parts are intricately planned and rehearsed in advance, and whose brazen and precise efforts coalesce into a blossoming florescence of imagination, beauty, and temerity. There’s an implacable sense of wonder at their audacious accomplishments, but also in the way each step was executed to arrive at it. Soderbergh’s films are as much about the process as they are about the final product or achievement — and I mean that to apply both to the stories he tells in his movies and to the way that he makes them. Danny Ocean’s eleven (and his twelve, and thirteen) resemble nothing so much as an accomplished film crew, and their schemes are as preposterous as is the idea to make a movie out of them. Perhaps Soderbergh fancies himself a Danny Ocean or a Jimmy Logan, and I wouldn’t blame him for his presumption: based on the consistently admirable and pleasurable results that arise from whatever he turns his attention to, he posses a rare and valuable gift to run a crew and draw the best kind of work out of them. What I missed in Unsane — although only in hindsight, since the experience of watching it is so engrossing in the moment — is that same kind of reflexiveness, an element in the drama or in the filming of it that turns its view back on the way that very drama or filming was devised and executed. The happy news has already come that Soderbergh is finishing production on his next iPhone-shot film, which should be released before long. His experiment here was a success, and, hopefully, there we’ll be able to see the awesome and inspiring development of its results.