Like Mark Twain’s death, rumours of Steven Soderbergh’s retirement have been greatly exaggerated. The Hollywood director is still relatively young, yet he recently announced that he was giving up directing after directing 25 features. He then swiftly re-emerged last year with a quickly-assembled crime caper Logan Lucky as well completing an impressive spell showrunning and directing for the small screen (the groundbreaking The Knick). Now he has made this psychological thriller starring Claire Foy (who struck fame playing the Queen on Netflix’s The Crown).
Soderbergh apparently shot this all on an iPhone 7. While it once again confirms that he is an experimentalist, it is not such a good thing to know about the film as you end up thinking more about how he could have gotten certain shots than the story itself.
The whole concept also shows the director working with and against tradition and genre expectations. It concerns the fate of an ambitious young career woman named Sawyer Valentini (Foy). When we meet her, we learn that she is trying to get over a nasty case of stalking from a fantasist called David (Joshua Leonard) who she did little to encourage. The sexual menace of this behaviour will have obvious resonance in light of recent heightened awareness in Hollywood of gender and power issues. Sawyer is anxious and that is why she makes the mistake of seeking help from an unscrupulous therapist. Without wanting to go too near spoiler territory let us say that she then finds herself a victim of the unwanted attentions of a for-profit psychiatric hospital. At some point, the director has to resort to intrusive explanatory dialogue scenes to explain how it is possible for this ‘medical’ attention to spin out of Sawyer’s control.
Thrillers set in or around psych wards have a long history and they have a rich vein of paranoia and personal disintegration to mine. They can mostly go in one of two directions; either they hinge on an unscrupulous mental health organisation abusing the patients for its own nefarious purposes, or they go down the road of teasing us about the unreliable narrator and wondering whether we can trust what she or he is seeing or relating. Soderbergh has a bet each way here and, while this is understandable, it also comes somewhat at the expense of our willing suspension of disbelief. For this reason, one suspects that thriller fans will find the last twenty minutes less satisfactory than the build-up. That said, Foy works hard to carry the film and she is ably supported by the supporting cast. Parts of the set-up of the film are so plausible and creepy that you kind of regret that the available denouements are so trammeled by movie conventions.