Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, and Amy Irving
Thank the fates that Steven Soderbergh came out retirement. The indie superstar director who came to prominence with Sex, Lies and Videotape, and became a big player in Hollywood with the likes of Erin Brockovich and Oceans 11, would be sorely missed in the current cinematic landscape. It’s hard to pin point Soderbergh’s particular style, from Contagion to Magic Mike the director is always trying something new. My favourite film from Soderbergh is the two part biopic Che, which of course is a million miles away from the romp that is Logan Lucky. Unsane is mooted as his first horror movie, although it shares a thematic thread with Side Effects, both films dealing with the issue of not being able to trust your own mind. What has made Unsane stand out is the fact that Soderbergh decided to shoot the whole film entirely on an IPhone. It’s a decision that for the most part works, and for this movie feels like a smart creative choice, rather than just a gimmick.
Unsane is centred around Claire Foy’s Sawyer Valentini, a young woman who has just moved to a new city to start a new job. She’s cold with all those around her, not looking to become friends with any of her new work colleagues, and asking dates for one night stands, no strings attached, and definitely no contact afterwards. We soon find out that Sawyer has been a victim of a stalker, and that the reason behind her move was to get away from him. She still sees him everywhere though, so she decides to get herself some help. She visits a councillor who asks her to sign some papers. Signing without reading, Sawyer soon finds herself involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Things get worse when she starts seeing her stalker as an employee of the hospital.
As Sawyer Valentini, Claire Foy gives a tour-de-force performance. Fresh off her role as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown, Unsane gives her a chance to really show off her range, and she gives it her all. From hysterical, to cold, to obviously seductive, this is a role which could come across as unlikeable, but Foy taps into some raw emotions which have you rooting for her all the way through. The way she starts at a place of such stead-sureness, and how she lets the inner doubt slowly creep into her face is an acting masterclass. She creates a character that is entirely believable, and helps us feel like she could be any one of us. Joshua Leonard does well in the stalker role, walking the fine line between threatening and pitiful. Jay Pharoah is great too, instantly likeable and charasmatic as Sawyer’s only friend in the institute. There is a suprise cameo too, but that felt a little distracting.
The use of an IPhone works really well. It makes everything in the frame seem tight and claustrophobic, perfect for a film about someone who feels trapped. The slight change in focus, and the auto white balance also add to a sense of uneasiness. If the aim of the film is to make us question how sane Sawyer is, these factors are an effective dynamic in telling that story. Technology is also a big part of stalking these days, so seeing everything through an IPhone lens does feel fitting. There is also some nice touches of social commentary, especially in regard to how private mental health clinics work in the US. Soderbergh does well to almost strip Foy of her humanity the second she steps into the hospital. She becomes just another number, or just another product on the production line.
If Soderbergh does mount some tense moments, the film doesn’t really hang together as a whole. The pacing is a little off, and some scenes feel like they go on forever. It’s also a little too predictable, it plays with the idea of Foy’s mental health without ever really paying it off. I’ve had this problem with some of Soderbergh’s over films, like Contagion. You leave feeling like you’ve had an amazing starter, but not like you’ve had a full meal. It also, for me, wasn’t scary enough. It’s tense and unsettling in parts, but I didn’t feel like the tension was ratcheting up, again probably more of a pacing issue. I think it also stumbled whilst balancing on the line of scary because it could happen to you, and just downright unbelievable. Too many moments where characters are in shock because they thought something like this could never happen, but as an audience member you’re thinking “nah, this really could never happen.”
Unsane is worth watching to see how Soderbergh utilises the IPhone camera, and for a huge performance from Claire Foy, but really offers little else. It’s tense in parts, but never lives up to the sum of those parts. It shows a lot of promise early on, but kind of meanders into nothingness.