By Jack Dignan
Originally Published on Salty Popcorn
Not even retirement could stop Oscar Winning director Steven Soderbergh, who returned to the big screen just last year after a near non-existent ‘retirement,’ in which he still had time to produce an entire TV show and serve as cinematographer on the sequel to MAGIC MIKE. He’s a director who knows no bounds. His work is audacious and exciting, and his latest psychological thriller, UNSANE, sees him following in the footsteps of Sean Baker’s TANGERINE and shooting the film entirely on an iPhone 7. A gimmick? Sure. But does it work? Kind of.
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) has hit the reset button on the life she once knew. After a horrific incident of stalking, which ended with her filing a restraining order against her former client David Strine (Joshua Leonard), Sawyer moves to Boston and starts fresh. But the trauma of her past continues to haunt her. She’s delusional and suicidal, and in desperate need of therapy. However, after an initial therapy session, Sawyer soon finds herself involuntarily committed to a mental institution where she can’t escape. And worst of all? Her former stalker, David, is now working as one of the employees.
It’s a tense, taut, hallucinogenic thriller that works, in large thanks to the low expectations I had going in. If you’ve seen the trailer for this movie, you’ve probably already created a certain image of the way you think this film is going to go. It looks to be one thing, but in reality, it’s something else entirely. UNSANE isn’t a questioning of our protagonist’s sanity, we know she’s sane (or at least sane to a certain degree). It’s a questioning of our protagonist’s survival as she’s forced to confront the insidious, violent stalker who nobody believes is the same man she claims he once was.
The effectiveness of UNSANE, for the most part, is due to Soderbergh’s unsettling direction. His use of the iPhone as a camera occasionally adds a layer of visual unease, where everything on screen feels incredibly uncomfortable and very claustrophobic, but this works predominantly in the smaller, secluded sets. Everything there feels ominous and inhuman, almost working as there own character in a way. Unfortunately, the rest of the visuals are ugly more often than they are creepy. There’s only so far an iPhone can take you and some of the shots in this movie are unfathomably bad. An early therapy session in particular is noticeably awful in its visual design.
This does lead to a conversation about why an iPhone was necessary for this type of movie. It rarely adds anything visually, nor does it play into the themes of the story. Perhaps it was a question of budgeting? But even then, there are plenty of other affordable ways to shoot a movie that won’t look nearly as disgusting. Have you seen the prices of an iPhone recently? Soderbergh was adamant that, as an audience member, you won’t notice the difference, but trust me, you can, and it’s far from pretty. Soderbergh hopes to only shoot on iPhones from now on. Let’s hope that next time he actually uses it well.
However, a lot of the film is saved thanks to lead performances from Claire Foy and Joshua Leonard. Foy, fresh off of her run on Netflix’s THE CROWN, gives this her absolute all. The performance is incredibly draining, and it takes a lot to showcase the raw, unsettled emotions her character has to go through, but she nails it from start to finish. A third act breakdown is particularly effective, matched perfectly by a haunting, ominous performance from Leonard, whose villainous stalker is unrelenting in his viciousness. This film has a finale so revolting and unsettling that it’s impossible to see coming. And I loved it.
Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay is big on ideas, but not so effective in execution. You can feel their overarching goal pushing through towards the surface, but it’s burdened by mediocre dialogue and poor characterization. You feel sympathy towards Sawyer due to her dire situation, but you don’t necessarily connect with her as much as I would’ve liked. There’s enough there for this film to work, but it could’ve been so much more. Given another rewrite, the film would’ve burst to life in ways this current draft only hints at.
If sick, twisted thrillers are your thing, UNSANE is for you. This diabolical, unsettling film will shake you and revolt you while retaining its sense of unease and intrigue. Some of the scenes do require you to stretch your believability just a little too far, and at one point one of the characters receives superhuman strength for all of thirty seconds in a hilariously bad murder scene, but low-tier Soderbergh is still good cinema.
Like the article? Make sure to spread the word on social media.
You May Also Like: