20 Apr 2018

Why I Don't Trust Steven Soderbergh

Trigger warning: this post mentions depression and suicide. There are also spoilers for Unsane (2018) and Side Effects (2013).
Director Steven Soderbergh released his new thriller Unsane to the public last month and was met with fairly positive reception across most platforms. The film follows a woman who is pursued by a stalker and becomes confined to a mental institution and has been called "engaging on a visual level", "fast-paced and well-acted", and "a tense, twist-filled, nightmarish flick." While the film boasts some impressive feats - including the fact it was filmed entirely on an iPhone - there's a large aspect of it that hasn't right with me and many others.

This film portrays them as unflinching, intimidating places where there is a real risk of harm and violence and control is completely taken away from you the moment you step through the door. Not only this, but it gives the impression that the main character absolutely cannot be trusted at all. I think this is the main problem I have with the film, because one of the biggest hurdles that mentally ill people face is that people think we’re untrustworthy, incapable of making our own decisions or might not be functioning at full capacity.
And yet, Unsane keeps the twists and turns coming for ‘entertainment’ value and I suppose that whilst it does attempt a unique style of direction (being shot on an iPhone 7) with different camera angles and a visual style I’ve never seen before, I didn’t feel like it gave me anything to care about and it just made me pity the character and her efforts to escape this nightmare that she is in.
This is a sentiment that was echoed elsewhere. Reviewer Hanna Flint felt the film "exploits the stigma of mental health and sexual harassment while failing to offer any meaningful contribution to either conversation."

For full disclosure, I haven't seen Unsane. However, this situation reminds me of Side Effects, an earlier film by Soderbergh that also included mental illness as a theme. After attempting suicide multiple times, Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara) is prescribed an experimental SSRI to help treat her depression. While the drug initially helps her, it also causes some unexpected side effects such as sleepwalking. This leads to her murdering her husband in her sleep. Although she is declared not guilty in court under her plead of insanity, the plot eventually unravels to the point where it is revealed Emily faked her depression and suicide as a way to kill her husband and get away with it.
While many people enjoyed this film - as its 83% Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest - I found it to be deeply upsetting in the way it portrayed antidepressants and treatment of mental illnesses. That the system could be manipulated in such a way as to give a murderer a free pass is disturbing in itself, but the fact that Soderbergh used this as a catalyst for his intense thriller feels cheap and damaging to those who are seeking help for their mental illness. While I think it could have been much, much worse, it still felt like an "outside looking in" approach to the subject.

Doctors made 64 million prescriptions of antidepressants in 2016, and I was on them myself last year. But there are always more people that need help, and the problem with Side Effects is that it seems Soderbergh was quietly pushing those people aside so he can portray mental health treatment as a thriller. I don't want to see more movies where our struggles are seen as "GASP PLOT TWISTS" or as a source of entertainment. To do so feels isolating and incredibly patronising. 

Instead, why can't we have more films that feel more inclusive towards those suffering with depression? Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is a perfect example of portraying a true and accurate depiction of depression without being harmful. It's not nihilistic, nor does it fuel any detrimental stereotypes, instead it's about how we endure despite everything life throws at us and how we push on even when we hate everything we’re doing. It's quite a beautiful film in that regard and I wish there were more like it. Side Effects just feels lazy compared to that. The stigma is already bad enough, and that's why I don't trust Steven Soderbergh to make any more films about mental health.

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