Review: Unsane

Tired of being held against her will at Highland Creek Behavioral Center, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) — the frazzled protagonist of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane —pulls aside a nurse and, in her sweetest voice, thanks the nurse for her care and cooperation, and asks if she could call her family to explain that she’ll be detained for a few days.

The nurse sees right through Sawyer’s ploy, as do we viewers. We’ve already watched with our own eyes Sawyer pull the same move on a coworker and we’ve watched her behave erratically with a date. So no matter how much she insists that she does not belong in a psychiatric home, that she only wanted therapeutic help for trauma from an intense stalker, we don’t believe her.

And that’s kind of a problem, because the last few years have taught us the importance of believing women about their fears and abuse. At its best, Unsane grapples with this issue of trust, turning the iPhone on which Soderbergh shot the film into an unreliable narrator and raising epistemological questions about how we decide who to believe.

It’s disappointing, then, that the movie does no more than suggest these ideas before abandoning them for rote thriller story.

Unsane occasionally asks us to think about what evidence we believe and what we dismiss. The camera shows Sawyer lying to people and admitting to suicide plans, things that make us think she belongs in an institution. But later, Soderbergh’s camera lingers on a room that Sawyer just left to capture people talking about her behind her back or to show us an orderly messing with her meds.

Moving his iPhone in a mechanical manner or positioning it at odd angles, Soderbergh gives the film a surveillance footage appearance, which not only reinforces the sense of paranoia, but also the limited perspective, reminding viewers that we’re always looking at things through our own personal lens.

Soderbergh gives us plenty of frames to help guide that personal lens, in the form of characters who claim to know what’s going on. SNL actor Jay Pharoah is particularly good as a Highland Creek veteran who may be an undercover reporter, as is Joshua Leonard as the orderly that Sawyer believes to be her stalker. These explanations serve as a Rorschach test for viewers, as our preferred explanation says more about our assumptions than it does the actual plot.

That is, until, the movie more or less explains it all. By the time we hit the third act, all truths are revealed, and hunter and hunted play out their roles in a dutiful, if unimaginative fashion.

This shift diminishes the film, not just because the slasher-esque final act is boring, and not just because the first act questions were so compelling. It’s disappointing because Unsane evokes real-world fears about violence against women and the public’s reluctance to believe victims, and subordinates them to nifty iPhone tricks.

Soderbergh has shown himself to be a smarter filmmaker than that, even in his popcorn flicks. Unsane falls short of the standard set for himself, but is even more disappointing for failing to fully address one of the most pressing issues of our time.

The Insufficient Gods of Mister Miracle

The current Mister Miracle series by Tom King and Mitch Gerads is, to my mind, the best superhero series published by the big two right now. And I’m a little surprised by that, because it kind of sounds like the “grim ‘n gritty” nonsense that usually hate in comics. In this story, DC big bad Darkseid finally gets the fabled Anti-Life Equation and uses it against Mister Miracle, just as our hero has been drafted by his half-brother Orion into final battle against the forces of Apokolops. But all of that high-concept action occurs in the background of the series, which instead focuses on Mister Miracle’s descent into depression.

Again, that sounds like a clumsy “Hey! Adults! Comics are serious!’ story. But instead of cheap Identity Crisis grit, King and Gerads fully humanize their characters, and pair the big ideas of Kirby’s vision with big theological and philosophical ideas.

This combination hits every one of my sweet spots, so I had to write about it for Think Christian. My article takes a page from theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of faith to interpret the series:

Mister Miracle is, in many ways, a story about faith—how belief drives one’s life. Like most superhero characters, Mister Miracle and the New Gods are defined by fighting, as many of their stories involve good guys from the planet New Genesis battling Darkseid, the fascist ruler of the planet Apokolips. These fantastic elements inform the plot of the new Mister Miracle series, but King and Gerads relegate them to the background, devoting as much page time to Mister Miracle and his superhero wife, Big Barda, watching television or hanging out in Los Angeles, where he has assumed the alter ego of an acrobatic escape artist. This mix of ordinary and outrageous does not diminish the latter, but rather sublimates super-heroic combat into the characters’ worldviews. They cannot conceive of themselves outside of struggle with their enemy. Conflict is their faith and their life.

Read the whole thing here, and be sure to read the series as we get excited about the upcoming Ava DuVernay directed New Gods movie!

Review: The Strangers: Prey at Night

“Because you were home.”

That line is the scariest part of the 2008 home invasion slasher The Strangers. It perfectly captures the movie’s sense of nihilistic dread, the fear that three people might decide to torture and kill you for no reason at all.

That dread is also the biggest argument against the existence of this year’s sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night. The masked killers – unofficially called “Dollface,” “Man in the Mask,” and “Pin-Up Girl” – still lack discernable motivation, but we do know a little bit about them now. When Dollface pounds on the door and asks for Tamera, it lacks the same chill as the original. We’ve seen this before. It’s their schtick.

It’s to the credit of director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Below) that the movie is so effective despite losing that crucial element.

Prey at Night follows the old sequel maxim of “the same, but more.” In addition to upping the body count with a prelude, this entry swaps out the original’s couple on the rocks with a nuclear family and expands the setting from a single house to an abandoned trailer park. And like the original, our victims here are in the throes of domestic turmoil: teenage daughter Kinsey’s (Bailee Madison) unspecified rebellions force her mom and dad (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) to send her to a boarding school, with older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) reluctantly in tow.

That’s hardly the most exciting drama, and Kinsey’s fashionably ripped jeans and Ramones t-shirt signals a Hot Topic shopper more than a juvenile delinquent, but the small personal stakes work in light of the movie’s existential threat. Problems that one seemed so monumental become utterly meaningless when you’re hunted for no reason.

Roberts accentuates this meaninglessness by giving the film ironic distance. Cinematographer Ryan Samul shoots the movie beautifully, employing long-distance shots with which he zooms or slowly pushes onto the characters from far away, reinforcing the sense that they’re constantly being followed. Samul occasionally spikes the screen with colors from gaudy neon lights around the park, which pairs well with the soundtrack — a mix of 80s pop (Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” figure prominently) and Adrien Johnston’s Goblin-inspired original score. Juxtaposing slasher horror with neon and synth is a page from Adam Winguard’s play book, but it works exceptionally well here. As demonstrated by a scene in which a character tries to keep above water in a pool while bleeding out from a stab wound, the music and color implies the universe laughing while people die horrible deaths.

These drawn out scenes of suffering are difficult to endure, but they set the movie apart from most slashers. We actually care about the family and the film simultaneously acknowledges and expands our sadness at their deaths. The family members are sensible people, which not only makes us like them, but it allows Roberts and screenwriters Brian Bertino and Ben Katai to dodge cliches about dumb victims. For example, the victims lose their cell phones because, before bad things happen, dad collects them for quality family time — leaving them in a convenient pile when the killers come to smash them.

So while the final third act is still fun, one cannot help but be disappointed when the movie starts directly following slasher tropes, giving the heretofore human killers Jason Voorhees’s teleportation and regeneration powers, and hitting well-worn story beats.

These genre dips make the movie feel too familiar, which is a shame. Up until that point, The Strangers: Prey at Night managed to scare despite making its agents of cosmic indifference become more predictable.

Review: Gringo

Facing down a mercenary’s gun, Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) does what any good-hearted but overwhelmed middle-manager would do: he drops to his knees and begs God for help. Shocked by this display, the mercenary (Shalto Copely) lowers his weapon and tries to talk some sense into his target. When asked if he actually believes in God, Harold answers, with equal incredulity, “What kind of man does not believe in God?”

Both men are shocked by the other’s ludicrous answer, and its hard to tell where screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone intend the joke to land. The scene ends with a car ramming into the mercenary, thus rescuing Harold in the most improbable manner and implying that his prayers have been answered. But most of director Nash Edgerton’s crime comedy Gringo treats him like the ultimate schmuck, foolishly keeping his faith in fairness and hard work as everyone takes advantage of him.

This “everyone” includes a fairly wide array of unsavory characters, and I don’t mean “unsavory” in the playful sense. These aren’t characters we love to hate, but bad people, badly portrayed, as the quality cast has no clear vision from the director. Nash’s brother Joel plays Harold’s best friend and boss Richard as a stereotypical business bro, switching between alpha-male competitiveness and nonsense corporate philosophies. Charlize Theron gets to add a bit of femme fatale edge to her role as Richard’s partner Elaine, but she feels just rudderless as Edgerton, unsure if her character’s barbs are sharply funny or just stupidly mean.

Tambakis and Stone fill their story with so many awful people, that opportunism and exploitation seem like the norm, and Harold the dope who takes too long to realize that. In and of itself, a jaundiced worldview isn’t a problem, and the story has pretensions to be an Elmore Leonard-style caper, with lots of double-crosses and memorable crooks.

But its too lazily realized to be effective. The plot is fairly straightforward — Richard sets up Harold as the patsy go-between with the Mexican factory he’s using to manufacture a not-quite-legal cannibas pill, thus inflating the value of he and Elaine’s pharmaceutical firm — and any other layers, such as Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried as a low-level drug mule and his girlfriend or Diego Cataño and Rodrigo Corea as opportunist criminals, add more business and no texture.

The most glaring example of this problem comes in the form of a cartel boss who takes an interest in the marijuana factory. In two scenes, the boss begins talking about his love of The Beatles before killing people, but the juxtaposition has no effect. It’s not funny, as there’s no joke there. It’s not menacing, as we’ve seen violent gangsters a million times before and we don’t care about the victims in these scenes. It doesn’t really even serve the plot, as the victims (and the cartel itself, really) are tangental to Hector’s story. It’s just a half-hearted attempt that dies from lack of conviction.

Conversely, Oyelowo puts in complex performance, lending humanity to what amounts to a dopey fall guy. The extra moments he takes to acknowledge people Richard and Elaine dismiss and the way he enthusiasticly trusts people who will betray him keep the audience pulling for Harold, even when we should be shaking our heads with disgust. He’s a real person, understandably frustrated to be lost among cartoonish bad guys.

If Gringo had a stronger vision or tone, Harold would be a modern tragic figure, the one good and principled man against a legion of cheats. But instead his actions are just random occurrences in a meaningless world without a higher power.