With films like Sex, Lies and Videotape and King of the Hill, Steven Soderbergh is known to be one of the greatest filmmakers to come from independent cinema. But he became a bigger name when he ventured into commercial filmmaking with crime films like Out of Sight, The Limey and the Ocean’s film series.
Since then, he’s produced various projects, helped boost careers of influential auteurs like Christopher Nolan, and balanced out his commercial projects with his experimental projects. The latter resulted with mixed results like the drama film Bubble; the sci-fi remake of Solaris and the comedy Full Frontal. When Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature filmmaking back in 2012 (later claimed to be a sabbatical), it didn’t feel like much of a blow since his creative outlets would be fascinating regardless of the format, whether it is from television, theatre or the internet.
For his latest project, after his return to feature filmmaking with heist comedy Logan Lucky, he has mixed his commercial aspirations with his experimental sensibilities with Unsane, a horror exploitation film starring the talented Claire Foy. But what makes this film experimental is that the film was made entirely with the iPhone 7. Does the film succeed at being entertaining as well as showing what the iPhone 7 is capable of in terms of cinematic panache?
The film follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a woman who has been relocating from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard) for the last two years. Despite having a normal office job and living healthy (due to her salad lunches) she is unable to live a normal life due to her seeing striking visions of her stalker.
Consoling with a therapist of her past events and her current condition, she unwittingly signs in for a voluntary 24-hour commitment to the Highland Creek Behavioral Center. Her stay at the facility soon gets extended when doctors and nurses begin to question her sanity. And just when things get worse, Sawyer believes that one of the orderlies is David. Without much support from her friends and family as well as in the facility itself, Sawyer will do whatever it takes to survive and fight her way out.
Unsane is a very striking entry in Soderbergh’s filmography due to the fact that it is an entry where he ventures into pulp B-movie territory. With the script written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (who have previously written comedies like Just My Luck and The Spy Next Door… no really), the story hearkens back to the old-school exploitation films like Shock Corridor and classic madhouse films like The Snake Pit, One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Repulsion; so we are in familiar territory here. The film does venture into horror tropes in the third act, which could lose some of the audience, but Soderbergh lends it enough style to make it fresh, even when the script does show itself to be mildly problematic (or perhaps fittingly, irrational) in retrospect.
But there are many elements that make Unsane stand out from its familiar trappings and flaws. One element is the film’s surprising thematic punch. Whether the film was uncannily released in a time that involves the era of Time’s Up and Me Too movements, the film is essentially a timely metaphor for how women are not believed and subjected into harassment; how they are driven to doubt their experiences to the point of possible delusion; how men treat them in such a way that it affects every viewpoint of their actions, however trivial. The opening scene of Unsane sets the tone rather quickly and succinctly. It involves Sawyer talking to her boss and he offers her a work-related invitation or a moment in the film where even as something as seemingly small as not reading the fine print of a contract can be seen as scary. But the way it is executed gives off an underlying sense of tension that rings undeniably true.
It also makes some striking social commentary on disabled care that not only compels within the scope of the story but it also adds to the delusion of the characters and whether or not they are sane, resulting in more added tension. And what makes it all work is Soderbergh’s restraint in conveying these themes without rubbing it in one’s face.
Another element that makes Unsane stand out is the direction by Soderbergh (under the name of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard). Utilizing the iPhone 7, the colours, the compositions and the shots lend the film a sense of grit and tact, which is reminiscent of 70’s exploitation films. It also lends the film a creepy, voyeuristic vibe that implies that anyone out there would be using their cellphones to spy on them. And the specific idea is amusingly delivered by a high-profile cameo from a Soderbergh regular who states that “Think of your cellphone as your worst enemy”. The musical score by Thomas Newman compliments the vibe of the film really well, whilst sounding unconventional in that it doesn’t build up the tension, but it makes the tension pervade throughout.
The staging of the conflicts in the film are also quite unexpected. In one scene where Sawyer becomes incredibly destructive, the scene is shown in both the POV of Sawyer and from behind within the same shot. Now usually a scene such as this would be an opportunity for the actor to “carve a slice of ham” so to speak, but Soderbergh relies more on the filmmaking, rather than the performances.
But slyly enough, there is a scene where it is set in the room of quiet solitary confinement and it becomes like a stageplay of sorts, where the characters become quite confronting and vent their feelings towards each other and it gets quite thrilling like an action scene. And with the honest thematic punch, the scene becomes one of the most thrilling scenes in 2018. It is that good.
The supporting cast of Unsane are all good sports, from the charismatic Jay Pharoah whose character can be seen as sane even if his theories sound delusional, to the chameleon-like Juno Temple who gives another unhinged performance. Then there’s Amy Irving, famous from 1976’s Carrie, another film involving the abuse of a woman, providing strong support as Sawyer’s mother. And of course there’s Joshua Leonard as George Shaw (or is it David Strine?). As much as is suitable to go into the details of praising his performance, it would venture into spoiler territory, but he is compelling here just as he was natural in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
But the biggest element that makes Unsane worth seeing is the Queen herself, Claire Foy. Standing out to this reviewer ever since titular performance in the underwhelming Season of the Witch, I have enjoyed her work in The Crown and Breathe. And hearing that she is playing Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming film, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Unsane is essentially the audition tape for it.
Foy gives an incredibly raw performance that conveys the gamut of emotions that Sawyer goes through perfectly. What is notable about Foy’s performance is that it never feels like Foy is trying to endear herself to the audience. There is a righteous anger within her that makes her lash out physically or even as minor as saying something that passes off as passive-aggressive, even if it becomes irrational. All of this adds to the credence that her character may or may not be insane, and Foy conveys that convincingly. Whether she is angry at the position she is in or whether she is panicking at the supposed presence of her stalker, Foy’s performance is the solid foundation that makes Unsane work.
Overall, despite the familiar story and the minor script problems in the third act, Unsane is a lean, mean and powerful psychological horror-thriller that packs a timely thematic punch and features what could be Foy’s best performance.
Sidenote: Unsane not only amusingly ends on a freeze-frame (which is basically unheard of in the present day of cinema) and it features one of the shortest end credits reels in a very long time.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Unsane hits cinemas this Wednesday, April 25th.