Synopsis – A young woman is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear–but is it real or a product of her delusion?
My Take – While Hollywood studios continue to bloat their budgets in order to provide us an everlasting cinema experience (not that I am complaining), master filmmaker Steven Soderbergh comes out with a film that he shot entirely on iPhone 7 Plus, with a relatively sizeable $1.5 million dollar budget, and set it up for a wide theatrical release. An eclectic filmmaker with more than thirty years of experience, director Steven Soderbergh is going through something of a career-renaissance as of late following his return from retirement in the early 2000s, from his brilliant 2017 heist comedy, Logan Lucky, to his critically acclaimed stints on TV like The Girlfriend Experience, Red Oaks, Godless, The Knick and Mosaic, the past few years have been pretty good.
Hence it comes as no surprise when a director of his stature ends up making a strange and ballsy move like this one, especially given the growing popularity of streaming platforms. Thankfully, his ground-breaking effort proves above all, that it’s not the camera that matters but a decent script, a competent cast and crew and, most importantly, the passion to do it all. Compared to similarly shot films like Tangerine and Escape From Tomorrow, this film is effectively an amateur-shot professional film, that tells a taut and absorbing tale that blurs the line between insanity and reality and makes us question everything we see.
As expected, the film is wonderfully frustrating, rewardingly claustrophobic and tensely insular experience that sticks you right in the slightly off-kilter head of its protagonist and does a great job of making you feel exactly the way she does at every moment. Those willing to submit themselves to the film’s psychological messing will find themselves taken on a fun ride, one that doesn’t stop until the very last scene.
The story follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a sharp, cynical young woman working in a bank. Unknown to people around her, she has been suffering from depression due to her horrific stalking incident at the hands of the obsessive David Strine (Joshua Leonard), over two years ago, a result of which she had to relocate to start a new life away from her mother (Amy Irving). Self concerned that she has been growing cold and detached from her day-to-day life; Sawyer finds and drives down to psychiatric facility in an attempt to find someone to talk to.
However, having undergone a counseling session, she finds herself involuntary committed to a mental institution. Stuck inside with a group of extremely distressed mental patients with varying degrees of functionality, she begins to slowly lose her mind, mainly as she is repeatedly harassed by another patient, Violet (Juno Temple). While she finds a sympathetic friend in Nate (Jay Pharoah), another seemingly normal individual who has been committed due a drug addiction, her fears become worse when she becomes convinced David has also started working in the institution as an orderly.
The film is a psychological horror film pendulum, moving back and forth between what is real and what is a delusion. This is yet another well-struck thriller/horror-ish film that takes an original concept and bends it on its head. There are enough twists and turns over the film’s 98 minutes that audiences might start to follow Sawyer and question their own sanity by the film’s end. Set within the confines of a standard psychological thriller, director Soderbergh has taken a relatively unknown cast and crafted a film that pretty much revolves around two central characters, the predator and the prey, and thrust them into a film that is heading in one direction, but sharply and unexpectedly curtails off into something that is surreal and farfetched, and yet strangely believable and humanistic in the way it plays out.
The script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer is sharp and well-executed, with a great sense of pacing and a very subtle air of dread permeating throughout. The pace is almost perfect, as we’re dealt a number of blows every time we begin to get comfortable in each new situation, and the slow descent from slightly strange to straight-up sinister is a palpable and uncomfortable one. The fact that the sanity of the lead is called into question is a great move, though it isn’t pushed quite as far as it perhaps could have been, and it keeps you unsure about everything you see. The film does so well to build suspense and real emotion, that you become a part of the film. It’s also incredibly scary, especially when you imagine being in a similar position where you are involuntarily committed with no escape and no one to believe you. The minimalistic filmmaking also gives the performers more to do and they rise up to the challenge.
In a standout scene Sawyer confronts her ‘stalker’ and the standoff between both Foy and Leonard works like two performers in a play. The two command the screen as they go back and forth trading sharp words, with the camera unobtrusively hovering between them. It’s skillful film making like this that makes the film not feel like just an effective experiment but a solid film in its own right. Layered underneath this, however, appears to be a subtle social commentary on the Medical Insurance industry in America, and how innocent, sane people find their liberty and freedom robbed from them in a box ticking, profit driven culture, which shows an intelligence beneath it.
The fact that the new film, the film was shot completely using an iPhone may be something that would turn many a number of potential viewers away from seeing this film, but actually having now seen it, I can safely say that the camera work for this film is far and above the main reason to see it above anything else that it offers. The raw and unfiltered look provided by the iPhone marries well with the film’s thematic descent into madness. Most of the scenes take place in dimly lit corridors and sterile, stuffy looking rooms and the off-kilter filming style helps heighten the feelings of malaise and unease. There is a real sense of panic and claustrophobia thanks to the use of wide lenses and close proximity to the actors that probably is in large part due to the fact it was shot on a smart phone, as you really feel like you are thrust into the very middle of this nightmare.
Director Soderberg‘s conceit here is about pushing the limits of iPhone 7 in demonstrating its potential and showing that the mobile phone that’s in most of people’s hands could be just as valuable in making a decent if not artistically made video they can upload in the Internet or whether it can also be considered a part of equipment that an aspiring filmmaker can use if ever they’re on a tight budget. In addition to the surprisingly innovative camera work, the film also convinces with a calm and mysterious soundtrack that always blends in perfectly. The light techniques are also employed skillfully and often add a gloomy touch to the sinister film. There are very few special effects which are used very efficiently as they make the viewers wonder whether the protagonist is experiencing reality or just hallucinating.
However, despite the overall concept, the film’s storyline has several plot holes or at least strange coincidences related to the presence of the film’s antagonist. Revealing you anything more would spoil the experience but let’s just say the film isn’t even slightly realistic. If you are however ready to accept that a work of fiction can be nonsensical and open up to this film, you will get ninety-eight minutes of excellent entertainment with great actors, an intense atmosphere and a tense story line. Coming to the performances, Claire Foy is just incredible and gives a raw performance that doesn’t let up. Her character has a perfect balance of sarcastic humor and emotional vulnerability, and she remains consistently interesting and makes us want to see just how she’ll confront her demons. In supporting roles, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, and Amy Irving are equally effective. Matt Damon too appears in an excellent cameo. On the whole, ‘Unsane’ is a gripping psychological thriller that’s not just an effective experiment but also a creative, innovative, well-acted and well-constructed solid film.
Directed – Steven Soderbergh
Rated – R
Run Time – 98 minutes