Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Unsane is a cleverly made, intense psychological thriller from three-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Steven Soderbergh, a director who is never content to repeat what he has done before. The production is slightly better than the story, but it suits it perfectly. Led by a very strong lead performance from Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth on the Netflix series The Crown), this is a captivating, sometimes uncomfortable, film that is a solid choice for those looking for something a little bit different.
Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a women who has just moved from Boston to Pennsylvania for a new job. She is suffering from anxiety due to a problem with a stalker and seeks someone to talk to about it. Shortly after that, she finds herself involuntarily admitted to a mental institution. Is she crazy? Or is there something else going on?
The big thing that people will talk about in regards to Unsane is that it was entirely filmed using an iPhone. It is not the first film to be made that way, but Steven Soderbergh is certainly the most prominent director to do it. He is in love with the technology, saying it is extremely easy to use and looks great. He likes it so much he is has already made another film using an iPhone, the upcoming basketball drama High Flying Bird.
It may not be good for every type of film, but it works just fine for this story, which mainly takes place in one location. Point-of-view is very important to Unsane and the portability of the iPhone makes it perfect for bringing us right up close to Sawyer. We experience what she does in a very voyeuristic way. The picture quality is not perfect, though that is not a problem for a movie whose protagonist may not be seeing the world clearly. In fact, it is an advantage. It makes viewers question the reliability of what we are seeing.
I am not sure Soderbergh has quite proven that the iPhone is a great replacement for more traditional cameras, but he has certainly proven that a good movie can be made using the technology. That being said, his skill as a director is likely a much bigger reason why this particular film works so well. He worked as his own cinematographer (and editor) and the camera placement is perfect for adding tension to the proceedings. It gives the feeling that Sawyer is trapped, with the walls closing in on her. There are a lot of close-ups of her face, which also traps us with her. It keeps things unsettling, even when nothing particularly alarming seems to be happening. It makes things feel slightly off, which allows Soderbergh to maintain a creepy atmosphere throughout the movie.
Claire Foy brings the perfect mixture of intelligence and confusion to the lead role. Her sanity is in question and she is equally convincing in her composed moments as in her unhinged ones. She does not play it as someone who knows they are in a thriller. She is a woman attempting to recover from a trauma, who finds herself in an even scarier situation. It is a complicated role and Foy employs just the right amount of anger and fear.
Soderbergh’s last film was this past summer’s delightful heist comedy Logan Lucky. He has worked in comedy, drama, action and has made large films and very small ones. He even made the TV murder mystery Mosaic, which was originally released as a phone app. He directed the psychological thriller Side Effects in 2013 and Unsane (about 96 minutes long) most closely resembles that in its control of tone and ability to keep the audience guessing. Side Effects was a little better, with a more compelling story, but Unsane has its own charms. It is an intriguing film, well made irrespective of technology.
I do not know if other major filmmakers will be using the iPhone to make movies, but Soderbergh continues to surprise and impress regardless of genre, format or technology.
3½ out of 5
Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini
Jay Pharoah as Nate Hoffman
Juno Temple as Violet
Amy Irving as Angela Valentini
Joshua Leonard as George Shaw
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer