Most filmmakers have a “brand” that they subscribe to, what they’re known for. George Romero was known for zombie films, Christopher Nolan has intelligent epics, David Fincher has sleek, mind-bending thrillers, while Spielberg brings movie magic to any genre. Steven Soderbergh has never had a brand of an kind. His films are all so different and set apart from each other that, no matter how you try to piece them together, it never makes up the photography of a typical filmmaker. He’s made comedies like the “Ocean’s” trilogy and “Logan Lucky”; he’s made thrillers like “Traffic” and “Contagion”; he’s made dramas like “The Good German” and “Erin Brokovich”; hell, Soderbergh even made “Magic Mike.” He’s all over the place, but always consistently talented and grounded. Soderbergh is a filmmaker constantly looking to build himself as a filmmaker by doing something new, and never wanting to hit the same territory twice, and this has never been more apparent in Soderbergh than it is in “Unsane.”
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a no-nonsense businesswoman new to Philadelphia, after moving from Boston to escape the grasp of a seemingly relentless stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard). Sawyer finds herself paranoid and hallucinatory in the city, constantly seeing her stalker in places where she knows he could never reach her. When she reaches out for therapy, she speaks on a time where she was suicidal in passing voice, and goes to reschedule another appointment with the therapist at the session’s conclusion, after filling out some paperwork. Soon, Sawyer finds herself whisked away back into the psychiatric hospital, having unknowingly committed herself to the institution. Sawyer’s confusion and anger soon turns to fear as she begins to see David manifest within the hospital as an orderly, but at this point, she begins to doubt whether her visions are real, or if she actually is insane.
Let’s get the big elephant about “Unsane” out of the room: the film was shot on an iPhone 7 Plus. No, this isn’t some sort of clever dig about how I feel about the cinematography in the film, it literally was shot on an iPhone. Soderbergh, aching to test out as many new filmmaking techniques he can, opted to shoot the film on the Apple smartphone in 4K with a collection of clip on lenses and stabilizing grips. He has stated that he feels that this will soon be the way of the future when it comes to filmmaking and that he plans to shoot many of his films in the future in the mobile format for its mobility and ease of use. I’ll be the first to say that no, an iPhone will never replace the look and feel of a typical cinema camera, but the implementation of the phone’s usage into independent filmmaking? Soderbergh definitely is onto something. Of course, Soderbergh is not the first filmmaker to shoot feature length films on an iPhone, as Sean Baker of “The Florida Project” fame, shot his previous film, “Tangerine” on an iPhone 5 with anamorphic lenses, as well as other independent filmmakers have utilized the smartphone in other iterations as well. “Unsane” does mark the first time a wide-release film has ever been shot on an iPhone, but does it have to chops to pass itself off as something presentable on the big screen?
Yes, yes it does.
Now, of course, this film doesn’t look like a normal film. It’s shot in a strange, narrow 1.56:1 aspect ratio, the color grading is strangely off-putting and the lighting sometimes shows off the limitations that the iPhone has when it comes to shooting narrative storytelling, but to say that Soderbergh, like many filmmakers before him, didn’t defy the odds in using an iPhone to create something truly interesting is just not true. The filmmaking style fits “Unsane” here, making the film feel a lot more volatile and out there than a film shot on a cinema camera like a RED or an ARRI might feel like. It’s the lack of polish that makes “Unsane” feel so uneasy and off-putting as a film, but that’s nothing without its story and performances.
Foy, hot off the heels of her stint on Netflix’s “The Crown,” does wonderful work here as Sawyer. She plays it completely straight-faced through the entirety of the film, even as it gets completely bonkers near the film’s third act. This is a role that doesn’t suit Foy on the outside, but once inhabiting the role, she has an incredibly palpable energy about her that, from the very first moment she comes on screen, feels like a truly fleshed out character with a human personality. Sawyer is a frustrating character, but you never once don’t completely feel for her and her situation, as Foy’s commitment to the horror of the film is present in all her violent intensity. You sometimes are frustrated with her decisions and behavior, but you’re more frustrated with the way in which she’s treated and discarded within the walls of the hospital.
Supporting characters, while all beneath the shadow of Foy, all do wonderful work as well. Amy Irving, finally back on the big screen, does wonderful, if sometimes wasted work as Sawyer’s mother, Angela. SNL alum Jay Pharaoh does some wonderfully charming work as Nate, Sawyer’s one friend on the inside, aware and compassionate of her situation. Juno Temple delivers an always interesting performance as Violet, the volatile patient in the hospital constantly trying to antagonize Sawyer. But it’s Leonard as Sawyer’s stalker that really takes the cake next to Foy here. This is a truly unnerving performance that hits the true nail into the disturbing nature that comes with a lot of white male entitlement to women’s bodies.
In fact, “Unsane” hits on a lot of topics that often go unspoken in women’s lives that need to be brought up. Sawyer is constantly ignored and belittled by the medical staff in the hospital, in much of the same way that women are incongruently ignored and belittled in their own doctor’s offices. They’re expected to watch their words to prevent unwanted attention from men, rather than to teach men not to expect anything from women just because they might give you attention. “Unsane” is a surprisingly feminist film that really gives Foy the power come the third act to overturn all the expectations that were placed on her simply because she was told to by some sort of professional, and how that sometimes to save not only your life, but the lives around you, one might have to make some unethical sacrifices to do so.
“Unsane” also takes a look inside the practices many for-profit medical businesses take in ensuring their success as a business first, before that of an ethical medical facility. That’s not to necessarily say that all of the nurses and orderlies within the hospital are evil by any means, as they all simply have a job to do, but the look inside the higher ups at the hospital paint a different picture that’s an interesting take to place on film.
But let’s not get anything twisted here, “Unsane” is basically a B-movie. It’s schlocky, sometimes cheesy, pretty damn implausible and absolutely bonkers, which actually makes this film super fun to watch. The performances might be stellar, but the film itself, however uneasy and frightening it may be, must be taken with a grain of salt as a truly out-there genre film that doesn’t seek to be taken seriously, only its themes. Soderbergh knows this and embraces it, checking off “B horror film” from his laundry list of genres he wishes to add to his filmography. This is another point where the iPhone photography actually helps out, as the movement and freedom of the small camera gives Soderbergh the opportunity to manipulate the image in a way where the tone of the film meshes more with the video quality of the film itself.
“Unsane” is insane. It’s a film that I had to think about quite a bit in deciding my place on it. It’s not perfect, but it’s an incredibly interesting, and I’d say successful, turn for Soderbergh as a filmmaker and another inspiration for aspiring filmmakers to get behind the camera of their own film simply by picking up their phones, albeit with sound equipment, grips and lenses. Still, the film itself doesn’t rely squarely on its iPhone gimmick to get its story across. This is an unnerving, often terrifying, occasionally frustrating and entirely effective thriller, with Foy giving an absolutely fabulous performance of no compare with an actress in her generation today. I think the thing about “Unsane” that made me question it was not in its quality, but in that it affected me differently than a normal film a “safer” director would’ve made from the screenplay. This is a film that you’ve never really seen before, even if it doesn’t twist and turn in impossible ways, even in its more familiar elements, “Unsane” is brand new.
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharaoh, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, and Amy Irving.
Runtime: 97 minutes
Rating: R for disturbing behavior, violence, language and sex references.
Fingerprint Releasing and Regency Enterprises present, in association with Bleecker Street, an Extension 765/New Regency production, “Unsane”