Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane sacrificially evaluates if Apple’s iPhone videography can sustain a traditional narrative feature (no joke, every single scene). It’s not the first time bulky cameras have been swapped for iPhone recorders – look at Hooked Up or numerous horror anthology entries – but Unsane differentiates itself by ignoring found footage confines. Soderbergh goes guerilla and brings to “life” a psych-ward paranoia thriller with unsettled stalker overtones via smartphone. Always rolling with his handheld device, never breaking from mission. It’s a gamble, and one that shakily opens like a YouTuber who discovered blue gel filters for the first time – never gaining momentum, but not always at the fault of cinematography.
Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a bank employee settling into her Pennsylvania transfer ever since bailing on Boston because of a stalker. She tries to put the ordeal behind her, but still sees her pursuer – David Strine (Joshua Leonard) – everywhere she goes. This brings Sawyer to a psychiatrist where she reveals past suicidal thoughts, but instead of being released after her session, she’s involuntarily committed “for her own safety” to the hospital’s psych ward. Sawyer, scared for her life, tries everything to escape. Left alone with no answers she lashes out, but that’s only the beginning of her problems when Mr. Stalker shows up as an orderly – or so she believes.
To accept Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s romanceless nightmare, one has to suspend insurmountable depths of belief. Far beyond an institutional conspiracy behind caretaking facilities that lock away patients because of their healthcare payment premiums – nothing to do with illnesses. Sawyer doesn’t belong, her insurance coverage a mere business transaction. Crazy and provocative, right? Until you consider how many times Unsane could have been stopped by insider rats with the capability to slam down program-ending hammers, or incriminating text message pictures that are avoidably ignored (like, with effort), or a slew of outbursts that ignore *every* bit of advice uttered.
I get it – Unsane wants to play cuckoo’s nest game of is-she-or-isn’t-she insane. The problem is, Soderbergh has no command of tension or terror as Sawyer rants on about her improper lockup. She insistently does the opposite of what she’s told, gives nurses even more reason to think she’s bonkers and feeds an effortlessly consequential story with no surprises. Soderbergh a shell of his meticulously craftworthy director self.
Some will not be bothered by restricting iPhone dimension limitations – although lens adapters *were* used – but even so, the static nature and abstract angles of Unsane do nothing to represent visual chaos. Rigs are presumably handheld gyrostabilizers that achieve steady-ish shots, even if zooms are forgone because of reduced resolution. Framework struggles to provide unique perspectives beyond single-set placements that hold on viewpoints for stretched takes (no dollies or carts). Padded rooms become boxy landscapes as someone squeezes into a corner crevasse to maximize wall-to-wall coverage. I do believe that in small doses and stuck to specific narrations, this new-age camerawork can shine tonally (dirtier, all focused, a bit distorted) – yet Unsane sees no benefit. It’s inconsequential cinematography for an otherwise terrifying human obsession piece.
Foy, as a strung-out object of unwanted affection, crumbles under the weight of her pursuer’s perverse courtship. Unsane is everything misconstrued by the proverbial “nice guy” syndrome seen time and time again. Warped and transformed into horror fodder nonetheless (“The Gift Of Fear”), and less subtle about delivery than a film like Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal. Foy is wounded, paranoid, devastated – abused for pleasure and not supported by worthwhile storytelling. Sawyer is a victim whose emotional trauma is physicalized in radical fashion as she’s trapped, harmed and made the princess of someone else’s fantasy in quite an (intentionally) disgusting way – it’s just so, so much without a statement to make. The film pushes and prods, but in a predictably and vigorless way.
You may read Unsane as “cheap” and campy – according to fellow theatergoers – but my reading was a more dire, serious tone. Never does Soderbergh’s projection strike me as B-movieness or popcorn entertainment. His mix of arthouse iPhone Hollywood and downplayed character accentuation (by way of misrepresented screen shrinkage) makes for a thriller that fails to spike excitement via a villain who’s always right where he has to be. Leonard a truly disturbed creeper, but one who pulls every horror cliche in the book. Soderbergh has done more with – well, never less – but still, development leaves so much to be desired as Strine pops around the umpteenth corner just when we think he’s finally been duped.
Honestly, bless microbudget horror and bless Steven Soderbergh’s continued interest in producing challenge-first cinema. Visions are meant to be chased but in the case of Unsane, execution feels every bit as barebones and exhaustingly experimental as trailers/marketing materials have indicated. Actors like Jay Pharoah exist to mislead real threats versus diagnosed mental breakdowns, but never with convincing scripted structures to back this imprisoned “patients of profit” yarn. There’s a medical sector satire hidden somewhere behind stooge nurses who turn a blind eye to hard evidence, equally true of manipulative male possession mindsets and the collateral damage caused. Us robbed of its sadistic premise by a screen experience that walls audiences out – iPhone videos better left for social media.
Unsane is rarely the vote of confidence that Apple hoped their iPhones would get as filmmaking tools, even if cinematography isn't always to blame in this predictable case of disturbed paranoia.