Is she or isn’t she?
Shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus, director Steven Soderbergh’s second post-retirement film, Unsane, continues to demonstrate the ever-expanding possibilities of smartphone cinema. With its grainy, in-your-face aesthetic, this latest psycho-shocker sports a unique visual style, filmmaker Soderbergh (who doubles as cinematographer using the pseudonym Peter Andrews) choosing to shoot the picture in the unusual aspect ratio of 1.56:1, which falls somewhere in-between full-frame and your traditional 1.77:1 widescreen, in turn giving proceedings a boxy kinda look that somewhat mirrors the movie’s intense themes of claustrophobia, entrapment and paranoia.
Written by James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein — the guys who umm … wrote Jackie Chan’s secret-agent family comedy The Spy Next Door (2010) — Unsane opens with an eerie male voice-over over an inky-blue night-vision landscape, these disquieting words belonging to guy named David Strine (Joshua Leonard), whom we eventually learn is a stalker. Having become obsessed with a volunteer nurse, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), while she was caring for his sick father in Boston, David developed an unhealthily fixation with the way she made him feel, chiefly after his dad passed away, his scary one-sided affection ultimately driving her out of the state. Traumatized by the experience, we meet the jittery Sawyer as she’s making a new life for herself in Pennsylvania, working as a data analyst for a big firm in the city, even though she’s still shaken-up by her painful past. Away from the office, there’s not much going on in Sawyer’s life, bar the occasional FaceTime chat with her mother Angela (Amy Irving), who’s missing her back home, and a few cautious no-strings-attached Tinder dates.
Although two years have passed since the hellish ordeal, Sawyer still remains much very on-edge and guarded, our protagonist deciding to go see a therapist at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center for some treatment. After telling her story and filling out some paperwork, Sawyer is asked to hand over her personal belongings then strip, being told that she’s going to be detained and observed for a period of 24 hours, this due to an offhand comment she made about committing suicide. Sawyer freaks out (as you would) and is forced to spend the night in the ‘loony bin’ where she meets the tampon-tossing Violet (Juno Temple) and a savvy opiate addict named Nate (SNL’s Jay Pharoah). Once Sawyer catches sight of a facility orderly whose tag reads ‘George Shaw,’ she loses the plot and slaps him, Sawyer convinced he is her stalker David using another name. Now, with her sentence being extended for another seven days and doctors questioning her sanity, Sawyer must try to convince the staff that she’s telling the truth without sounding as deranged as any of the other inmates. But, are her fears actually real or are they simply just a product of her own chilling delusion?
While I wouldn’t dream of spoiling whether George is, in fact, the voyeuristic David, the so-so screenplay by Greer and Bernstein makes this evident too early on, this premature revelation robbing the flick of some of its tension. Playing out like the world’s longest Instagram snap story, there’s a lot of subtext beneath Unsane’s gnarly grip, namely in regards to listening to women when they say that something’s wrong — which feels timely given the contemporary #MeToo movement. Director Soderbergh, whose filmography includes Contagion (2011) and Side Effects (2013), also comments on the corrupt American health insurance system and the way that bureaucrats can exploit the system by detaining people to squeeze money from their providers.
An amalgamation of the 1975 is-he-or-isn’t-he insane One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted (1999), and to an extent, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), Unsane really feels as though you’re watching a novel midnight movie due to its lo-fi home-video aesthetic (which can sometimes feel uncomfortable) and scrappy editing by Mary Ann Bernard (another alias for Soderbergh), the whole thing further enhanced by a commanding performance by Claire Foy.
Making a 180-degree turn from her elegant persona as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown (2016), Claire Foy is the driving force behind all of Unsane, the talented 34-year-old bringing fear, frustration and feistiness to her character, Foy acing the emotionally demanding requirements of the role, along with the American accent. A sequence that takes place in a padded solitary confinement room is bound to give certain viewers chills. After Foy’s performance here, I’m psyched to see her in the upcoming Lisbeth Salander follow-up. Joshua Leonard, of The Blair Witch Project (1999) fame, is creepy as f*ck as the disturbed omnipresent David, whilst relative unknown Polly McKie is unnerving as the tough Nurse Boles, who’s clearly turning a blind eye on some of the hospital’s iffy practices. No one does unhinged better than Juno Temple, Killer Joe (2011), who goes all cray-cray as Foy’s cornrow braided inmate Violet, whereas Stranger Things’ Aimée Mullins has little to do as straight-faced clinician Ashley Brighterhouse. Lastly, look out for an uncredited Matt Damon, Ocean’s Eleven (2001), who shows up in a flashback as a dorky security consultant hired by Sawyer, whose scenes look as though they were filmed over the course of a free weekend.
Shot in just ten days at a recently closed upstate New York hospital, Unsane is a very solid woman-in-peril thriller, one that’s bolstered by a killer turn from The Crown’s Claire Foy, the film only slightly let down by a contrived script, which gives too much away too soon. If you’re in the mood for a good bit of gritty blood-soaked cinema, however, then a trip to this crazy-house might just be in order.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie