For the Thrill of It: Steven Soderbergh Breaks Retirement – Again
When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no second acts in American lives, he hadn’t counted on Steven Soderbergh. More than once Soderbergh has deserted cinema, only to return with a new project. Two years ago, he officially announced his retirement from filmmaking, but then directed the visceral early 20th century New York hospital drama The Knick. Then, last summer, he crept back into cinemas with Logan Lucky, his Deep South, Trump-era variation on the Ocean capers.
More recently, he has completed another TV series, the innovative, interactive Mosaic. With Unsane, he has turned it into a feature.
A filmmaker whose desire for creative freedom has found him experimenting with form, Mosaic explored the possibilities of interactive entertainment. The series was an attempt to create a crime show that would regard audiences less as passive viewers and more as co-screenwriters; they had a say in character development and the progress of the series’ narrative.
Unsane takes elements of that show and streamlines them into a taut thriller. But rather than film it conventionally, Soderbergh chose to make it with an iPhone. He’s not the first to do this. The Handmaiden director Park Chan-wook picked up a Golden Bear at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival for his short Night Fishing, while The Florida Project’s Sean Baker made brilliant use of the iPhone’s mobility with his glorious, sun-dappled LA trans comedy-drama Tangerine (2013).
What Soderbergh does with Unsane is to channel the style of schlocky US B-movies from 1970s and 1980s. (In particular, it echoes the films of Larry Cohen, the man behind It’s Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976) and the bizarre Q, The Winged Serpent (1982), and the writer behind 2002’s Phone Booth.) Anyone familiar with American TV series will recognise Unsane’s closing moments, employing a freeze frame of the final shot that was so common back then.
If Unsane highlights Soderbergh’s ability to get our pulses racing, it also testifies to the filmmaker’s spirit of constant (re)invention. The commercial failure of Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993) and The Underneath (1995) – all accomplished films – and the US film industry’s response to them saw Soderbergh move back to New Orleans on the first of his premature retirements. His re-grouping took the form of Schizopolis (1996), a hilarious, wildly inventive and narrative-free drama that echoes the knockabout anarchy of Soderbergh’s spiritual mentor Richard Lester, the director behind A Hard Day’s Night (1964).
Full Frontal (2002) took major stars and placed them in a semi-improvisational environment, while Bubble (2005) offered up a radical – though not so much these days – approach to simultaneous multi-platform exhibition. The Good German (2006) attempted a period drama almost entirely filmed on a green screen, while The Girlfriend Experience (2009) starred real-life porn actor Sasha Grey in the story of a woman who makes a living from sex.
Unsane is also the latest thriller from the director and he knows how to ratchet up suspense. His Cannes-winning debut Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) showed his ability to draw tension out of a scene, but his non-linear fourth feature The Underneath found him comfortably playing with thriller conventions and non-linear narratives. The excellent Out of Sight (1998) – perhaps his best film to date – and The Limey (1999) also played with time, often to dazzling effect, with each offering up a satisfying payoff. While the Oscar-winning Traffic (2000) shifted between thriller, melodrama and docu-fiction. If The Good German’s (2006) attempt at a Casablanca-style period thriller didn’t quite satisfy, Soderbergh showed he could keep us in suspense with other bigger budget crowd pleasers like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Contagion (2011), while Haywire (2011) kicked ass alongside the best action thrillers.
Soderbergh moves seamlessly between mainstream entertainment and more provocative or experimental fare. The Mosaic and Unsane project is an attempt to try something different with a popular genre. For Soderbergh, it’s perhaps a way of ensuring that the work continues to interest him as much as it entertains us.
[Ian Haydn Smith, Editor of the Curzon Magazine]
Steven Soderbergh's Unsane plays on our screens now.