By Fergus McGillivray (Los Angeles)
Boy, did Steven Soderbergh do a 180 after the clever and charming heist-comedy Logan Lucky. Unsane, Soderbergh’s recent, entirely iPhone-shot psychological thriller is unsettling at the best of times and downright mean and nasty once it gets into its rhythm. It’s also a pretty good iPhone ad.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) suffers from insomnia and constant paranoia due to a past experience with a stalker. Seeking to rid herself of this mental stress, she moves cities, only to experience a terrifying relapse during a Tinder date. Desperate for relief, Sawyer speaks with a counselor at a psychiatric health clinic and unwittingly signs herself up for a night of supervision in the facility. Sawyer is furious and demands immediate release, but her heightened emotions are taken as further justification for her overnight stay. Inside the hospital, Sawyer meets several patients with real mental health problems and reacts violently to their unique tendencies. When nurses rush in to handle the situation, Sawyer is horrified to see her stalker among them – or so she thinks. Sawyer’s perceived sanctuary quickly becomes a prison of uncertainty and fear.
Unsane has two major hurdles to get over, and it manages to clear both. First is the issue of Soderbergh’s iPhone experiment. To budding directors out there: an iPhone can be adequately used to shoot a film – confirmed. Though obvious from the start, the phone camera quality does not detract or distract. In fact, the grainy, overstretched pixels produce a sort of claustrophobic effect, as if events were being viewed through the lens of a security camera. There is a feeling of invasive surveillance that goes along with the iPhone view, and the odd, bug-eyed facial close-ups of Sawyer and her stalker that the phone produces fit the themes of warped realities and psychological instability.
The second is to convince us that Sawyer’s plight is believable enough to make Unsane in some way relatable – that these are events could actually transpire. Admittedly, there are a couple scenes that test the boundaries of logic, (Sawyer’s inability to physically and emotionally control herself so as not to come off as a crazy person is particularly frustrating) but even at their most silly, these bits are forgivable enough that the viewer is able to suspend their disbelief. As a few twists unfold, how Sawyer got into the situation becomes a lot less important than how she can possibly escape it. There is an underlying relatability to Unsane for anyone who has experienced abuse of power, especially in the workplace. Unsane produces that feeling of hopelessness throughout, making it a tough watch for some.
Miraculously, Unsane avoids the allure of the formulaic, predictable Hollywood psycho-thriller plot and actually throws a few curveballs. Still, Unsane’s greatest asset may be its lead. Foy is convincing overall, and her performance only gets stronger as the plot gets more chaotic. Unsane works best when the twists emerge and the stakes rise, in large part thanks to Foy’s effort. A small role for underrated SNL alum Jay Pharaoh is also nice to see.
Unsane is not the next Memento or Black Swan, but it is a refreshingly uncomfortable thriller and proves that anyone with an iPhone can make a solid film. As long as they’re Steven Soderbergh.