23rd March 2018 (UK)
A young woman is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear-but is it real or a product of her delusion?
Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah
Claire Foy battles for her sanity when others have already decided she’s lost it in Unsane, a nauseously unsettling and skin crawling thriller from an out-of-retirement-again Steven Soderbergh.
Having traveled 450 miles from her hometown and family to escape a dangerous stalker, Sawyer Valentini (Foy) seeks support from what she believes is a group for victims of similar circumstances. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and after an initially promising meeting at the Highland Creek Behavioural Center she finds herself duped into committing herself to the asylum. If that wasn’t bad enough, she’s convinced that her stalker has followed her to her new home – and is now working inside the very place she finds herself trapped in. With the nurses and police unsympathetic to her cries for help, she must get a grip on reality and figure out whether her worst nightmares are real or if it is simply a figment of her imagination.
Shot entirely on iPhone 7+ cameras, Unsane has a terrifyingly voyeuristic feel throughout. If there was ever a story which required a feeling of unwanted spying to be conveyed, then that of a relentless stalker is the perfect choice to utilize the raw feel of a video camera phone. The extreme close-ups which can be, and frequently are, accomplished due to the size of the iPhone combined with the use of fisheye lenses to give the impression of the walls closing in on her set the intrusive tone to sometimes unbearable levels and Soderbergh has done the seemingly impossible by reinventing the long-dead found footage genre by integrating it into traditional filming methods. It’s not the first movie to use iPhones as the primary recording method – that honour goes to Sean Baker’s 2015 crime comedy Tangerine, filmed exclusively on three iPhone 5s’ – but Soderbergh’s inspired decision to use them here elevates Unsane above your typical stalker flick.
Claire Foy deserves full praise too as Sawyer as she keeps the mystery alive by seamlessly switching from a believably sane victim who is wrongly imprisoned to a questionably unhinged patient who quite possibly is just seeing things that aren’t there. It’s a challenging role refreshingly embraced by Foy who we are more used to seeing more restrained turns from in Netflix’s thoroughly Royal The Crown and TV miniseries period drama Wolf Hall and could very well be her breakthrough feature. Other characters aren’t given as much attention or thought past one defining feature – there’s the cornrow haired Veronica played by Juno Temple who doesn’t take too kindly to Sawyer as well as Nate, played by Jay Pharoh, the friendly opioid addict who looks to be in there by choice. There’s not a whole lot more to them than that, but nevertheless, they have their part in the story.
Ironically, for a film shot on one, Unsane warns of the dangers of excessive mobile phone usage. In a flashback showing the terror Sawyer experiences at the height of her stalking problems, a welcome cameo suggests that her mobile is her worst enemy due to the information she allows it to access. It’s not the only cautionary message contained within the film though: I got the feeling that Soderbergh is taking swipes at the perils of disregarding women’s reports of abuse, the mental health system as a whole and the importance of reading what you sign before agreeing to T’s and C’s. It’s never overly preachy though and Sawyer’s mental state remains at the forefront of the story.
It’s a shame then that Unsane doesn’t maintain its strong start, as by the third act it becomes imprisoned by a script that seemingly hasn’t thought further ahead than the initial premise. When all cards are laid out, admittedly rather early into the lean 98-minute runtime, Unsane plays it safe by adhering to a narrative template that has been used many times before.
Nevertheless, Unsane’s unconventional approach to filmmaking is the key selling point, and I for one totally buy into it. A persuasive performance from Foy and an engrossing, unraveling first act adds straps to its straightjacket and certifies Unsane as inmissable.
Inventive filming style
Claire Foy's performance
Flat secondary characters
Slightly disappointing resolution to an interesting premise