Unsane (dir. Soderbergh)

Image: Claire Foy tries to reason with the police in Unsane [Source: IMDB]


In this twisted One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-esque thriller. A young woman is involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Unable to escape, she finds her situation descending towards a living hell, as she recognises her longtime stalker as one of the staff. But is it reality or a product of her delusion?

Director: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple [15]

Shot entirely on an iPhone, Unsane might have been a groundbreaking piece of cinema -if not for Tangerine (which gained prominence for being shot entirely on an iPhone). Director Steven Soderbergh suggested that it would be unnoticeable and no different from any other film. A humorously misguided remark, but while the cinematography of Tangerine proved film can be shot on the most economical of cameras, Unsane proves that the iPhone can be a tool of great filmmaking.

Key to the horror and atmosphere of Unsane is the flat and amateur looking cinematography. The unease created through this method of filming works wonders for this setting. Its amateur looking flair gives the film a real feeling, almost fly on the wall level of observing, which makes for a deeply unsettling experience. Soderbergh’s direction guides the viewer with precision; scenes, seemingly throwaway shots and lines of dialogue all build with momentum to the natural climax. Equally as guided are the performances, all play with an aspect of authenticity, fittingly complex or erratic. Claire Foy’s Sawyer is challenging, not only as a character but to the audience also, the paranoia of her own sanity plays off exceptionally.

As an audience, we are never entirely sure if she is actually insane or not, but what this does notably outside of good storytelling – is say a lot about mental health. Unsane also says a lot about the American health care system and about stalking. It’s a deeply unsettling discussion and certainly one that makes for a superbly uneasing thriller. The story has echoes of films that have come before but makes them its own. The cold, caged paranoia of Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining are played with here in its claustrophobic atmosphere, with wide shots sitting uncomfortably close to actors or distorted shots of flat, colourless hallways. The tension produced from these pales in comparison to the lack of a soundtrack. An element that doubles down on the fly on the wall experience and never draws attention to itself. Soderbergh is playing with conventional horror/thriller techniques, stripping away the old and showing a refreshing style akin to The Blair Witch Project and its found footage technique.

Despite its leaps and bounds, Unsane never quite takes off completely. Predominantly it’s a detached, removed experience, unengaging the audience on an emotional level. But while it makes for great objectional viewing, it never connects us to the fear or horror on an emotional front. It’s this detached approach that outlines the film’s climax as a pandering attempt to keep a mainstream audience engaged. Suddenly there is an aspect of a score and characters seemingly do the impossible, Soderbergh also chooses to cut away from its natural ending in favour of one that is ambiguous but evidently empty.

In the end, however, Unsane is a remarkable effort from Soderbergh – who demonstrates he can move from genres. Not only with ease but with real inspiration and innovation. While Unsane does not reinvent the wheel, it certainly attempts exciting new techniques for the thriller and horror genres. It’s unsettling, refreshing and an engaging experience aided from its grungy approach to its very real discussions – stripping away the fancy Hollywood style in favour of a raw tenacity.

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