Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Directed by:  Lynne Ramsay
Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novel
Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Location:  Park Avenue, NYC, 5/22/18
Opens: April 6, 2018

Novelist Jonathan Ames, whose 112-page novella “You Were Never Really Here” comes across as a book written to be put on the screen, may not have had the current administration in the White House and Capitol Hill in mind when he described the corruption endemic in our system.  No matter.  Corruption is embraced under many generations of politicians in the U.S., which is why this adaptation situates its evil within the East Side-Midtown area of Manhattan, close to the UN and to the purveyors of capital.  It may or may not be a coincidence that the mansion depicted in the final scenes could resemble a likeness of  breathtaking wealth during the gilded age, where money rules, where in fact there are no rules, and to get things done all you have to do is hire the right kind of guy to do it.

In this noirish adaptation, writer-director Lynne Ramsay—whose “We Need to Talk About Kevin” about a mother made meek because of an “incident” must struggle to love her strange child—focuses now on another person of disturbed psyche.  And who can blame Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)?  He was brutalized by his father, became an FBI agent and then a soldier in the Iraq War, and sees ghosts wherever he goes.  The specters are often women with dead eyes who stalk him, evoked by his experience in Iraq where he sees a girl killed.  He simply was never really there for her.  He dedicates his remaining time to the service of a hit man, but so far as we can see he’s a good guy.  He is part of an organization that rescues girls kidnapped for sex slavery, with Nina Voto (Ekaterina Samsonov) standing in for one thirteen-year-old that he rescues, but her own zonked out appearance could have resulted as much from abuse she faced from her father, State Senator Albert Voto (Alex Manette), as from her treatment as a sex slave.  The senator tells Joe, his hit man (for $50,000) that she often ran away from home.  Her unprotected status made her easy prey for the perverted criminals who hooked her into their lair.

The picture is filled with violence, yet don’t expect to see a grand build-up leading to a massive assassination.  The particularly artistic tone of the eighty-nine minute film presents violence often as events that had already happened, as though Joe was conducting the fury and the bloodshed off screen like the ancient Greek tragedians.  His weapon of choice is a hammer, and he appears to buy a different one for each killing.  One of the killings has poetry.  As his victim is on the ground, blood gushing from his stomach, Joe lies down with the man, joins him in singing a song from the radio, and holds his hand—whether to ease his pain of death or to sense when the fellow has taken his final breath.

Joe’s gentle moments appear in his treatment of his mother (Judith Roberts) with whom he lives, and also in his care for the rescued thirteen-year-old.  Most important as we look over the whole scene is that rarely has a crime drama been told with such a lean and mean focus, cutting everything to the bone—with moments of ironic peace such as when Joe buries a victim, large plastic bag and all, into the lake, wading into the water with suit and tie.

This picture is all about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, one that will hopefully be remembered at end-year awards time.  The grizzled man with a huge beard, glassy eyes, with the aura of someone wandering with seeming aimlessness as though through a dream albeit with a specific purpose, is mesmerizing. Yet the film is for a special taste, for an audience that does not need to see the actual commissions of crimes graphically reproduced, but is more than content to focus primarily not on the brutality but on one disturbed man’s psyche.

Rated R.  89 Minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

UNSANE – movie review


Bleecker Street/ Regency
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter:  Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Cast:  Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 3/19/18
Opens: March 23, 2018
Unsane Movie Poster
During the last few months when women, later embraced by the #MeToo movement, accused men of sexual abuse, the public would not always believe them.  After all, who would wait five, ten, twenty years after a series of horrific sexual attacks to report them?  Ultimately we find out that the accusing women had a right to keep silent.  Some depended on the men for their very jobs, others may not have believed that what the men were doing was even wrong (particularly the young gymnasts who let their grievances dissolve because some could not know that what the doctor was doing was illegal and immoral).  Now comes a film that warns us: ignore women’s accusations at your peril.

That’s not the only thematic concept brought out by “Unsane,” an absorbing and, for director Steven Soderbergh, one which takes him away from his usual concerns.  Think of the corruption of hospitals who sucker in patients with insurance, whether Medicare, Aetna, Oxford, of any of a number of businesses–that should be giving medical facilities an ever harder time to justify their treatments than they do now.

In a bizarre sequence of events that finds Sawyer Valentini (Clare Foy), on the fast track as a data analyst with a bank whose boss (Mark Kudisch) praises her work—seeks therapy at a Pennsylvania psychiatric hospital, where gets more than she bargained for.  When she answers affirmatively that she sometimes has suicidal thoughts, then goes a step further by signing a paper (without reading it, don’t you do that sometimes?) agreeing to a voluntary commitment, the counselor (Myra Lucretia Taylor) has Nurse Boles (Polly McKie) tell her to remove her clothing to search for marks notwithstanding a crescendo of objections from Sawyer.  While the hospital looks spanking modern on the outside, the interiors where patients are bedded border on the nightmarish.  (In fact, Soderbergh, utilizing Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script, may want the audience to wonder whether Sawyer is having a bad dream.)  Her roommate, Violet (Juno Temple), feeling dismissed by the new patient, threatens to kill her with a knife she has secreted under her gown, Dr. Hawthorne (Gibson Frazier) ignores her objections, ending both conferences with “To be continued.”  Sawyer’s threats to call the cops does not scare the administrator: the police more or less ignore complaints from “the crazies.”

Worst of all nurse George (Joshua Leonard) takes a fancy to her, playing a larger part as the film progresses, and is accused by Sawyer, whose protestations are at the loudest pitch yet, of stalking her all the way from Boston to Pennsylvania.  She has only two people to count on: her mother, Angela Valentini (Amy Irving), who wails that her daughter is 450 miles away, and best of all Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), completely normal, a voluntary patient in for opioid abuse.  He clues her in about the corruption: the hospital tries to commit people right and left in order to collect insurance during the seven-day allowance period.

You may be scarcely aware that cinematographer Peter Andrews captures the whole film on an iPhone, which makes the movie serve as an ad for the pesky gadget that has addicted almost the entire millennial generation.  And the iPhone absolutely loves Clare Foy, a stunning performer appearing in almost every scene, a veteran of TV episodes like “The Crown,” where she connects with her audience in the principal role of Elizabeth II.

“Unsane” comes across like a B-movie, which is probably Soderbergh’s aim, a rollicking trip into a snake pit where compensation from insurance companies maintains a cuckoo’s nest that may or not serve the public for which it exists.  There is a lesson in this film that we would do well to remember.  Next time someone in the so-called helping professions asks you if you have suicidal thoughts, answer: “Never.”

Rated R.  98 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+