Unsane Is Ridiculous, But Also Timely And Unsettling
There really is no upside to being institutionalized—unless you’re being pursued by a deranged stalker, who can only get at you on the outside. That’s the silver lining for Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) early in Unsane, right before it all goes grotesquely downhill. Shot on an iPhone by too-prolific-for-his-own-good auteur Steven Soderbergh (in the last seven months alone, he’s completed two feature films and all six episodes of HBO’s Mosaic), Unsane is an undeniably silly, implausible genre exercise that’s elevated by its director’s always active cinematic imagination.
An accurate description of what’s really going on would spoil Unsane’s many surprises—which are alternately potent and clumsy—so you’ll have to settle for something a little more vague. Sawyer is a data analyst who ends up in Pennsylvania after being scared away from her native Boston by the aforementioned stalker. Still reeling from this trauma, she keeps human connection to a minimum, though even a one-night stand can stir unsettling memories of the past. When the anxiety becomes too much to bear, she goes looking for answers at Highland Creek Behavioral Center and, through some kind of Kafka-esque bureaucratic mishap and/or a coordinated conspiracy, she finds herself committed.
As a single night turns into a more prolonged stay, Sawyer—who is now questioning her own sanity—turns to her widowed mother (Amy Irving) and a sensible fellow inmate (Unsane MVP Jay Pharoah) for support. Unfortunately, she also has to contend with an unhinged roommate (Juno Temple) and a nurse (Joshua Leonard) who looks exactly like her Boston nemesis. Could it really be him or is Sawyer simply hallucinating her worst possible nightmare?
Unsane isn’t the first feature film shot on an iPhone, but it is the first studio star vehicle to rely entirely on this dubious format. The motivation for Soderbergh’s choice is a little fuzzy (like many of the images onscreen), particularly from a marketing standpoint. If ever a movie would seem to be encouraging viewers to bypass theatres and go directly to their smartphones, this is the one. But it turns out this is another in a long line of counterintuitive, even self-sabotaging maneuvers by Soderbergh, as Unsane is actually a carefully crafted mystery of subjective disorientation—think Flightplan (itself a riff on Bunny Lake is Missing) by way of Shock Corridor and Repulsion—that makes for a lively, if not quite crowd-pleasing, theatrical experience.
It’s also worth noting that the pre-#MeToo script by James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein achieves unintentional timeliness, though revealing how or why runs the risk of spoiling where the film ultimately goes. It was inevitable that eclectic genre-hopper Soderbergh would eventually tackle horror (Kafka and Side Effects only flirt with the genre) and this proves to be a good fit, particularly in sequences where he abandons his realist instincts and embraces the bad trip at the film’s core. The whole enterprise is unnecessarily hobbled by its relatively lo-fi imagery—made more conspicuous by Soderbergh’s otherwise strong visual choices—but Unsane’s brand of vivid, unsettling horror is a welcome departure from the dreary Hollywood norm.
Unsane hits theatres (not smartphones) today. Check out the trailer below.