Working with porn stars and non-professional actors, reconstructing new edits of old classics and experimenting with modes of distribution, Ocean’s Eleven director Steven Soderbergh likes to push boundaries. He is the epitome of the ‘one for them, one for me’ motto, often switching from shooting A-lister pals George Clooney and Matt Damon to pursuing passion projects. His latest, Unsane, is perhaps his most ambitious excursion, shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. While this may give readers the idea the film is an alienating, impenetrable art-house venture, its story is anything but.
The Crown’s Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a career woman forced to relocate due to stalker, David (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project). Suffering with her nerves, she visits the Highland Creek Behavioural Centre to see a therapist. There, Sawyer is asked to sign a form which she is assured is standard procedure. Next thing, the heroine is dragged away and restrained by nurses who claim she has voluntarily committed herself to the facility’s mental institution. Fellow patient, Nate (SNL’s Jay Pharoah), claims her confinement is part of an insurance scam by the hospital. However, events seem even more sinister when it’s revealed stalker David is an orderly at the institution.
Within the first few moments of Unsane, viewers may find the iPhone footage a tad disorientating. The iPhone’s camera flattens the depth of an image but keeps everything in frame in focus. Looking just slightly different to how movies tend to look, it creates an unsettling effect. However, once the tension is amped – which happens almost immediately given Unsane’s tight 98-minute running time – the style of shooting makes sense. The audience is plunged into the headspace of a woman who cannot tell whether she is being gaslighted or losing her grip on reality. The continuous sensation that something is eschewed in terms of the camera’s depth subliminally plays into the story concept that all is not what it seems.
Soderbergh has said: “Anybody going to see this movie who has no idea of the backstory to the production will have no idea this was shot on the phone,”. He may be correct as the film’s stylish look and swooping, disorientating camera work belies it’s $1.2 million budget and iPhone origins. The question then is does the movie succeed in terms of story. The answer, with some minor quibbles, is yes.
Unsane is most successful in its first-half. Soderbergh and writers James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein (whose main credit previously is the panned Jackie Chan vehicle The Spy Next Door) keep the suspense level high teasing multiple conspiracy theories and suggesting what the viewer is witnessing is Sawyer’s warped perception of reality due to psychosis. When the film moves into the second half and begins unravelling the mystery, it is exciting in the moment due to some taut and surprisingly brutal set-pieces from Soderbergh. Yet, once the credits roll, one would have to be insane not to spot the various plot-holes.
Still, one can forgive these issues for two reasons. With its trapped female heroine, twisted sexuality and themes of madness, Unsane exists in the gothic genre, an art-movement not synonymous with sense. Meanwhile, for all its insanity, Soderbergh’s latest feels strangely timely. It centres on a woman suffering from abuse at a male’s hand whose cries for help lead her to be dubbed delusional. Much of the film’s sense of paranoia comes from a distrust of the healthcare system, insurance companies and social media. The latter is exemplified in a cameo by Matt Damon as a cop who warns Sawyer about the dangers of Facebook. It must be said, however, Damon’s brief appearance is a misstep, distracting from the string of excellent performances by less famous actors like Juno Temple as an unhinged patient of whom Sawyer makes an enemy.
Unsane is not flawless. Yet, it avoids feeling like an iPhone shot gimmick due to fine performances, great direction and some topical themes. It’s not quite this year’s Get Out, but it comes close.