Whether it’s ogling Channing Tatum in a G-string during 2009’s Magic Mike or following a cockroach down a pipe into a secure vault in last year’s Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s camera understands every object in terms of its status as a commodity throughout his eclectic body of work. In Soderbergh’s universe, social interactions, friendships, sex, you name it, are all thought of in quantifiable terms of utility and profit. As soon as something ceases to serve its original purpose, it is promptly disposed of—stepped on like a cockroach. This austere worldview makes much of Unsane, Soderbergh’s take on the b-for-Blumhouse horror flick, a surprisingly ideal outlet for the director’s academic fascinations. Instead of the strip club in Magic Mike, the speedway in Logan Lucky, or the business world of The Girlfriend Experience, the microcosm for capitalism we find here is that of a corrupt mental facility—an analogy that, given our collective psyche at this so-called “late” stage, requires little to no further explanation.
The mental facility here is the Highland Creek Behavioral Center and their scheme is simple. By temporarily imprisoning mental patients that may or may not be at serious risk of harming themselves or others, the institution mines their insurance plans until there’s nothing left. How long you have to stay at Highland Creek will depend almost entirely on the stipulations of your health benefits. For some, this could be a matter of days, for others of greater privilege, up to months. Like interchangeable workers in a production line, the patients at the center are subjected to the authoritarian rule of foreman-nurses and a manager-doctor—surveillants of an operation that methodically transforms lost time into the facility’s surplus profit. Those stuck at Highland Creek are not patients but laborers.
Seeking professional help for her paranoia, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) accidentally admits herself into Highland Creek, unaware of this underground enterprise. Having already been granted a restraining order against her persistent stalker, and moved from Boston to Pennsylvania to distance herself from him, she remains plagued by apparitions of David (Joshua Leonard), who seems to shapeshift and assume the form of the many men around her, including an anomalous hook-up. When he eventually shows up at the facility wearing a nurse’s garb, we’re left to wonder whether we’re seeing the real man or the digital ghost that’s been following her all along.
Lest this description color the staff as maniacal entrepreneurs or capitalists disguised in Nurse Ratched’s clothing, Soderbergh continually complicates the nefarious qualities we project onto them. If there’s any indictment here, it’s not of a work culture where not giving a damn has become the norm, but of the workers’ low wages and poor living conditions that cause them to not give a damn in the first place. Staff and patients alike, everyone is simply putting in their time. They clock in, then they clock out. Meanwhile, the system prevails.
With Unsane, Soderbergh continues to explore the limitations and capabilities of digital images, but this time the underlying anxiety has decidedly shifted. As long as we continue to fetishize practical effects, analog media, or any other physical thing that is supposedly more real or tangible, digital images like the ones in Unsane—which was shot entirely on an IPhone 7—will appear to us as intractable. Pulpy as the stalker narrative may be, it’s the underlying uncertainty of the image itself that gives expression to Sawyer’s unreliable point of view. This is why David, like a Facebook profile picture that super-imposes itself onto every guy Sawyer encounters, is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Swipe right or swipe left: she sees the same dude regardless.
This strategy of making the medium the message is also an essential aspect of Logan Lucky and The Girlfriend Experience, where the overarching materialist perspective is explored through the texture of the image. In Lucky, the entire ethos of the racetrack economy is epitomized in a color palette seemingly cobbled together from the hues of hot dogs and beer cans, while in the supposedly more sophisticated milieu of Girlfriend, it’s the cold, clinical tones that register most. With both films, Soderbergh, acting as his own cinematographer as he also does in Unsane, effaces all imperfections that could tarnish the image. But once you get behind this initial sheen, you see how alienating both of these worlds can truly be.
Unsane, on the other hand, loses all sense of material reality. The film insists upon its own imperfections; many images look like they’ve gone through the digital processing equivalent of a meat grinder and come out the other end partially abstracted and fully deranged. Things we thought were severed from reality remain subject to the same economic forces we see in the physical world. This is what the glitch aesthetic of Unsane reflects, which is what experimental filmmaker and film theorist Hito Steyerl defined as Poor Images, those which “present a snapshot of the affective condition of the crowd, its neurosis, paranoia, and fear, as well as its craving for intensity, fun, and distraction.” As the relationship between Sawyer and David comes to represent, this is a film about a virtual economy as much as it’s about the physical one depicted at Highland Creek. When Sawyer loses her own identity and exists only as a gratifying image for him, an image that need not have anything to do with her actual physical appearance, she has been transformed into a commodity. The system has, once again, prevailed.