If there is any director that can veer perfectly between arthouse and mainstream cinema, it would be Steven Soderbergh. The director responsible for crowd pleasers such as the Ocean’s trilogy, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight, has also made indie fare like sex, lies and videotape, Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience.
After a brief period of retirement from 2014-2016, he returned to the screen in 2017 with Logan Lucky. This was more mainstream than arthouse, being a heist comedy in the vein of his Ocean’s films. Unsane, his latest film, takes a mainstream psychological thriller and does something experimental with it. The whole film was shot using three iPhone 7 plus phones. Whilst this is not the first film to use iPhones instead of cameras, it is the first time that such a prominent director has embraced it for a wide release. And Unsane proves that it can work, and that it can support a tense, creepy movie.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a woman suffering from paranoia about men stalking her. This prevents her from having a proper romantic relationship with anyone. One day after another failed date, she goes to see a psychiatrist, but in the process accidently ends up committed in the local mental hospital. Whilst she is there, she befriends fellow patient Nate (Jay Pharaoh), who has secrets of his own and finds out that an important figure from her past (Joshua Leonard) works in the institution, with sinister intentions.
The story relies on a feeling of uncomfortableness and frustration. You feel annoyed whenever Sawyer is denied her request to leave and angry whenever the orderlies restrain her for doing something that is understandable. When the important figure comes in, the movie becomes very unsettling, especially when his intentions are revealed. Whilst it can feel repetitive seeing Sawyer constantly abused or put in danger, it increases the feeling that she is not safe in her environment and that a person like her should not be there.
The story does stray into some horror clichés, particularly towards the end. Some sequences also might come across as implausible to viewers, but your tolerance for this will depend on whether or not you are along for the ride. I was, so despite the events being somewhat unrealistic, it did not destroy the tension for me. These moments only come about at the end, so it felt like the film had earned the right to be a little crazy. The ending also adds a neat little twist to the story that is warranted after the climax: the end credits also include a nice visual parallel with the opening credits.
What adds depth to the story is the interesting commentary on US mental hospitals. Soderbergh tackled a similar subject in Side Effects, but this film is far more critical of the mental health system than that film was of pharmaceutical companies. The private organisation running the institution is the main antagonist for most of the story, coming across as both corrupt and inept in their handling of the patients. Thankfully, Soderbergh keeps this thread going, even when it is revealed that they are not the only villains. Again, some might find this aspect to be over-the-top, but I found it supported the main body of the film.
The film would not work as well if the actors/characters did not sell it, but thankfully they do. Claire Foy is excellent as the protagonist. Whilst it is hard to pull off a role that veers between calmness and hysteria, she manages to find the right balance. Sawyer is sometimes not the most likeable or bright character, but the writing and Foy’s performance keep the audience on her side. Joshua Leonard is also creepy and menacing, but in a way that feels natural due to his emotions being the opposite of his actions. This is shown best in a stand out scene between him and Sawyer in the third act. Former SNL cast member Jay Pharaoh also makes for a good straight man and his character is genuinely likeable. The MVP’s for me were a creepy Juno Temple as a crazed patient that butts heads with Sawyer and a Soderbergh regular who makes a welcome appearance.
And whilst the iPhone technique is noticeable, it does not affect the quality of the film. Despite the cheap and grainy look, the camerawork is varied and the gimmick never becomes repetitive. There are plenty of still shots that are either close-ups or have lots of background space, both styles increasing the tension of the premise, giving off the feeling that someone is watching Sawyer. But the best visual choice is when Sawyer is drugged against her will and freaks out. It was unique and interesting, and it made the scene feel abstract. The score by Thomas Newman is also solid but minimal, coming in when it needs to but absent when it should be.
In conclusion, Unsane works as a good thriller. The iPhone gimmick is used appropriately, setting the film apart from others of the same ilk. I would recommend it to anyone who likes psychological thrillers or just somebody who wants to see whether an iPhone recording on the big screen can work. It may not be Soderbergh’s best, but it is still a worthwhile experience.