Steven Soderbergh has always come across as a director who needs a reason not to do something more than he needs a reason to do it, playing with forms and new technologies to always stay on the cutting edge of filmmaking. He continues this trend with Unsane, a psychological thriller filmed entirely on an iPhone that uses its technological limitations to its advantage.
The smaller size of the iPhone camera leads to a restrictive aspect ratio that boxes in its main characters while lending each shot an almost invasive feel, as if the audience is spying on the characters. This is an appropriate way to view Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) – a woman suffering from severe anxiety as a result of continuous stalking from a prior acquaintance. When Sawyer goes to a mental health clinic to talk to a psychiatrist about her experiences she finds her attempts to leave blocked by staff informing her that she’s inadvertently signed herself in to voluntary confinement – and she’ll need to stay at least a week before they’re willing to let her go. Her attempts to prove her own sanity are further hindered by her insistence that her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard) has gotten a job as one of the orderlies…a claim that none of the staff take very seriously considering the circumstances. While the aspect ratio lends a claustrophobic element to the already uncomfortable setting the iPhone camera’s large depth of field ensures that the audience always sees everything in the background of each room Sawyer is in, making her feel both trapped and swallowed by her environment. When combined with a frantic performance from Foy Unsane promises a tense and unpredictable psychological thriller – but the script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer never really manages to deliver.
Unsane starts out strong, with genuine questions about whether or not Sawyer is in need of confinement. While she claims to not need additional mental treatment beyond the counselling she initially requested, Sawyer displays examples of paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, and violence within her first twenty-four hours of being hospitalised. The hospital hardly seems comfortable but the staff we see appear to be following all necessary protocols – cheerfully making conversation with the police officers that investigate Sawyer’s claim that she’s being held against her will as they hand over the forms she signed. Is Soderbergh making a savage attack on the state of mental health facilities in America, or is everything we’re seeing distorted through the perspective of a mentally unwell woman? I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some twist or reveal that would demonstrate the point Unsane was trying to make, but instead it just relies on out-dated stigmas towards mental facilities and the usual game of cat-and-mouse between Sawyer and David that appears in most psychological thrillers. As the story loses its ambiguity it relies increasingly on Foy to keep it together, who imbues Sawyer with enough strength and resilience to make her both captivating to watch and surprisingly dangerous.
It’s almost more fun to appreciate how Unsane was made than to actually focus on the story, as the clever directorial tricks Soderbergh uses are more surprising than the relatively standard plot. Exterior night scenes appear to be day scenes under a blue filter, and the most complicated visual effect is a simple but effective overlapping of two shots of Foy. It demonstrates how accessible filmmaking has become, and how a little ingenuity can get around the confines of lower quality cameras, but doesn’t raise the quality of Unsane itself beyond ‘pretty good’.
3 and a half stars.