Stephen Soderbergh has had a long career alternating between mainstream efforts (Ocean’s 11, Erin Brockovich) and experimental cinema (The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire). With Unsane, he has stayed true to this habit — after the crowd-pleasing Logan Lucky, his latest movie is a brash and shlocky thriller that contains many low-key genre pleasures. This is as good as this type of film gets.
It stars Claire Foy as the wonderfully named Sawyer Valentini, a seemingly depressed woman who works at a boring job and wants no-strings attached sex with random Tinder dates. After one failed hook-up triggers something in her, she visits a facility to consult with a therapist, and confesses that she has considered suicide in the past. After filling out a brief form agreeing to come back next week — “just boilerplate stuff,” says the therapist — she finds herself detained against her will. Initially, for one day, she soon finds herself staying much longer than anticipated. Things get more complicated once she finds out that her stalker is working at the exact same place!
The main plot is as old as time, perhaps best exemplified by Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain — somebody intends to make a brief visit to a mental institute, but ends up a resident. Its the classic paradox; they deny they are crazy, and in process end up looking like they have no grip on reality (you could say they are…unsane). Basically, the film works because of Foy’s brilliant performance, expertly toeing that thin line between competence, denial, and rage. One can’t be entirely sure that she is saying what she means. This forces the viewer to try and second guess the movie, making it as pleasurable to figure out as it is to watch. Additionally, the concept of a stalker who also works at the institute is a brilliant one, as it creates a power dynamic that always puts the protagonist in danger.
A similar concept was already portrayed in A Cure For Wellness last year, but Unsane has a completely different visual palette and overall vibe. It succeeds in its small ambitions where the former failed in its large ones, as once we get an idea of the bigger conspiracy, it actually makes sense to the rest of the plot and the film’s themes. Unsane slyly comments on how society monetizes mental illness, doesn’t believe what women are saying, and hasn’t implemented strong enough laws criminalising stalkers. Soderbergh loves going over the details, and expertly employs a famous face — in what is one of the best cameos in recent years — to tell us all about the methods one should employ to protect against stalkers. The interesting part is that the onus is on the woman to protect herself, and not on the man to stop stalking in the first place. These themes, however, aren’t really insisted upon with much force, instead used as a means to propel a teasing narrative that ends up with a very satisfying conclusion.
The use of an iPhone is not just a gimmick, but is integral to the film’s effect. The garish lighting schemes and unattractive close-ups create a strong feeling of unease. Likewise, the lack of motion smoothing in certain shots gives it a jittery, unreal feel that is in line with the movie’s intentions of manipulating reality. It is not the first film to be shot on an iPhone — many indie movies, including Sean Baker’s fantastic Tangerine have got there first — but perhaps it will be the first to catapult the approach into the mainstream. Imitators beware; just because the camera is an iPhone doesn’t mean the film is hyper low-budget. Soderbergh still employs key film crew members such as foley artists, gaffers, and colorists to make it into a competent feature. Nevertheless, by bypassing what is one of the most expensive parts of film production — renting high-quality film cameras — Unsane could reinvigorate low-key independent filmmaking.
Steven Soderbergh had one simple intention with this movie: shoot a high-quality and highly enjoyable thriller using low-grade equipment. He has more than succeeded in that aim. Expect Unsane to gain cult classic status in the years to come.