I do love it when a film comes from literally nowhere to impress those who are lucky enough and willing enough to give it a shot, especially when that project comes from a worthy director. Steven Soderbergh is a talent behind the camera and is no stranger to independent projects or groundbreaking visual styles. His newest film “Unsane” embraces that ambition and giving us a creepy and unsettling tale that used a rather unconventional camera to capture the action. Did the risk pay off, or is “Unsane” just another twisted asylum feature…Or both? This is my review of “Unsane”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Unsane” is a pretty simple film in a lot of ways. It follows a paranoid but confident businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) who has moved to a new city with a new job to escape a stalker named David Strine (Joshua Leonard). After a one-night-stand sparks a panic attack Sawyer seeks a support group but during her initial consultation at a hospital she unwittingly signs herself to 24-hour commitment in a psych ward. While being given her allotted drugs Sawyer realizes one of the nurses may be her stalker and tries to draw attention to the man, which only makes her look more clinical and earns her a full week in the ward. Desperate to escape and fearing for her life, Sawyer finds herself unsure of what’s real and what’s not or whether she is sane or insane while a larger conspiracy involving the hospitals practices also plays out around her.
This movie really features very few staring performances. Only four actors and actresses really get any development or screen time, and that’s not really a bad thing as it works to keep the story focused where it needs to be and plays into the claustrophobia of the experience, which I talk more about further down. Claire Foy, who has only appeared in a handful of films to date, portrays the lead character Sawyer Valentini, a somewhat neurotic woman who is in constant fear that her stalker is still on her tail. Sawyer is an interesting woman to watch because she is flawed in many ways. She’s slightly egotistic but also has a confidence we can’t help but respect. She’s cautious but with good reason which makes her antisocial. Foy manages to capture the eccentricities and paranoia of her character quite well and gives us a believably paranoid woman that at least seems pretty accurate to the stress and terror that someone with a stalker would face. She owns the screen and plays both a victim and a strong hero at the same time, balancing the vulnerability and bravery of such a woman nicely. All in all its an impressive performance and one that shows Foy’s acting range and capability.
The other major player in this film is Joshua Leonard’s David Strine who may (or may not) be the man who is charged with handing out drugs in the psych ward where Sawyer is housed. We do get to see Leonard embrace his character’s stalking ways and this was an eye-opening and frightening man for me to see come to life. While I’ve never been stalked by someone personally, nor do I know anyone who has, Strine makes me wish no one ever has to deal with something like this. It’s an incredibly real performance packed with layers and its own vulnerability as we see a man who truly believes what he’s doing is alright and that he can simply take what he wants from the world, even if that’s the freedom of another. He’s childish, but also spectacularly cunning which only adds to the intimidation factor. Strine is the scariest part of this film and proves to be both intimidating and childish at the same time making him a man easy to underestimate but impossible to predict and it’s all thanks to a committed, probably well researched performance by Leonard. Other roles in the film include Juno Temple as a truly disturbed patient named Violet, Jay Pharoah as a strait-laced recovering opioid addict who becomes an ally to Sawyer and Amy Irving as Sawyer’s well-meaning and religious mother and all come together to create a great supporting cast that allows Sawyer access to the best and worst of humanity during her mind-bending journey.
So I have yet to touch on one of the coolest aspects of this movie and I waited till here to say it because it’s truly an intriguing tidbit. This entire film was done using an iPhone 7 Plus. I’m not kidding. In a bold move Soderburgh filmed this whole project using a smartphone to show off the 4K capability of the product which allowed for some great cinematography and camera angles (like the pone above) that bulkier cameras would have limited. Soderburgh uses every aspect of the camera’s capabilities, including night vision, to film different parts of “Unsane” and incredibly everything is smooth, presentable and looks fantastic as a result. The camera angles and shooting style specifically are tremendously effective. We get one great confrontation between the two leads which focuses on them alone in a room and the camera circles around them giving us a great sense of the atmosphere and the chaos of the exchange. At the same time the sound feels more natural because it doesn’t always utilize microphones, at least not completely. A few scenes use the echo of the room to capture the sound which adds a touch of artistic style to this project.
Even without considering the phone-based shooting style this story just plays out so well and uses a claustrophobic atmosphere to perfection to make us feel as trapped as Sawyer within the walls of the ward. From its depiction of the fear and impact associated with an abusive stalker situation to it’s creative use of clichés and characters to tell a compelling story, “Unsane” keeps you guessing from the first moment to the last as to whether Sawyer is truly insane or if she is actually the only sane person in the building. There’s also always a sense of discomfort that bleeds into the audience. Never, even at the most peaceful of times, do we feel like the danger is truly over. In an odd way, the shooting style, storytelling and character portrayals all come together to make the viewers just as uncomfortable and on edge as Sawyer which helps “Unsane” become an engrossing and gripping horror thriller that strikes fear more out of realism than anything else.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
“Unsane” has a beautiful shooting style and a great narrative, but for me it’s bogged down by its secondary story which tries, maybe too hard, to expose the abuse that psych wards and hospitals are guilty of when it comes to insurance. That plays a big part in the story and is part of the reason Sawyer gets committed, because her insurance will pay for it, but to me it felt like a convoluted way to get her in the asylum when her actual discomfort and mental issues associated with paranoia were enough to warrant such committal. This all plays out to be part of a B-story that involves another character, but what was meant to be a biting indictment on the healthcare industry actually fails to add any real subtext to the film and waters down the actual mental impact Sawyer’s situation has on her. Sure it does legitimize the “is she crazy or not” angle, but even then we know she’s committed for profit not for her own well-being so even that mystery feels betrayed by this forced political statement.
While “Unsane” is by far one of the most atmospheric and uncomfortable asylum films I’ve ever seen, it’s truly a tale of two stories, one that makes the movie and the other that almost breaks it. On one hand it contains an uncomfortable and thrilling story that pits a victim against her abuser and forces her to come to grips with the true impact of that relationship on her life. On the other hand it’s a story with an unwarranted message that targets the healthcare industry. This story would have been better suited if the filmmakers kept it simple, but they complicated it and failed to trust the power, impact and significance of the core narrative. This was an opportunity to showcase the truly tragic mental impact of stalker abuse with a credible and well portrayed female lead and a well-established villain. It didn’t need a secondary narrative even if that narrative allowed for the introduction of other great characters. Even if the anti-healthcare message were more downplayed it would have made for a better film.
“Unsane” is a good movie, rising above the convoluted nature of its character’s plight to give us a truly creepy and legitimately uncomfortable movie-going experience. Its depiction of the stalker and the impact such a heinous human being can have on another seems pretty spot on and the victim of that relationship comes off as an honestly damaged individual who has suffered greatly. This plays well into the story and makes us, the viewer, just as confused and uncomfortable as the protagonist the whole way through. Sadly once the B-story kicks in “Unsane” delves into a territory it didn’t need to explore in order to have a relatable emotional core. Still the cinematography is great and it’s impressive it was all filmed on an iPhone because this is a well shot movie with high quality sound and picture that makes you feel like you’re right in the thick of the action. All in all I’d recommend it and I feel comfortable saying that “Unsane” still works well as a horror thriller and an asylum picture that explores one of the harshest realities of humanity with respect and conviction.