Steven Soderbergh is a prolific producer, but his directorial resume is quite impressive as well, particularly with the more recent film “Logan Lucky” which unfortunately flew under the radar with both critics and viewers. Now, Soderbergh takes a “stab” at his first horror film, “Unsane.” But to label it as just that, does it an injustice. It’s more of a psychological thriller with horror elements a la Stephen King. Think of it as a bit of “Shutter Island” and “Misery” blended together with touches of reality versus paranoia and you have “Unsane” all shot on an iPhone!
Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy-”The Crown”) leads a paranoid life, always looking over her shoulder, haunted or perhaps I should say, hunted, by a stalker. As she seeks professional counseling in yet another new town where she works successfully as a banking analyst, Sawyer is inadvertently self-admitted into a psychiatric ward. Unable to control her temper and “seeing” her stalker as a caregiver at the facility, she lashes out, increasing her observational time at the institute. Attempting to get out, Sawyer befriends Nate (Jay Pharoah), contacts her mother, all the while unravelling from within with a little help from Violet (Juno Temple) and Nurse George (Joshua Leonard).
“Unsane” sets the uneasy tone as we first meet Sawyer in her new surroundings, narrating what her thoughts are and giving us a few hints about her past. A few ideological seeds are planted regarding her mental status creating a distrust between the viewer and this supposed protagonist. The questioning continues throughout the film, even when we are provided with solid information and it is this intuitive writing that hones into the viewers’ psyche making “Unsane” insanely captivating.
Foy plays a strong and smart young woman with nerves of steel whose very inner being is tested. Each and every scene delves more deeply into her paranoia with just enough uncertainty that you begin to wonder what you would do in that same situation. Could you endure the treatment? How would you get out? Could you just be quiet and try to assimilate until your insurance ran out? (It’s the medical system so it’s all about the bottom line!) Pulling the viewer personally into that situation makes your heart race as you audibly gasp at some rather chilling and horrific occurrences.
Leonard has a dual role and again, he evokes feelings of trust as well as distrust in the first half of the film. As the truth is revealed, the story plunges down that rabbit hole of panic, tapping into the fight or flight defense mechanism we all inherently have. Pharoah stands out in his role as confidante, providing a bit of much needed levity and Temple is a natural in her role as psych patient with her bizarre mannerisms and lashing out unexpectedly.
As with any thriller/horror film, it is the element of surprise that makes them fun and while I can’t say this is fun, it most certainly kept me guessing. There were also some scenes that I simply couldn’t keep my eyes on the screen and I was thankful that I sat in the front row so that when I quickly sank into my seat to avoid what was coming at me visually, I didn’t kick the person in front of me. Here’s a warning—there are some psychologically disturbing and gruesome scenes, particularly toward the end that may be too much for some viewers.
Now, back to the iPhone as the camera. Knowing this when you go in, you take notice of some of the camera work initially, but you quickly forget about it as you are sucked into the plot and the characters. Seeing a film from a writer/director/producer/cinematographer the calibre of Soderbergh who chose to film “Unsane” on an iPhone will surely inspire future filmmakers everywhere.
“Unsane” is a brilliantly thrilling horror movie that any Stephen King fan would enjoy. Its chilling premise, unflinching acting, and gut-wrenching elements of suspense allow even the jaded movie goer to feel like he/she has seen something new. And without any spoilers, the end of the film is simply perfect.
3 1/2 Stars