★★★ / ★★★★
One might have heard of psychological thriller “Unsane,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, because it is shot entirely with an iPhone, but this piece of trivia, some might say gimmick, is uninteresting compared to the surprising social commentary it imparts.
While the story is able to keep viewers guessing as a genre exercise, the screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer is intelligent and so carefully constructed that it leaves enough room to criticize the current state of our healthcare system, particularly when it comes to mental health, and how victims of sexual harassment and assault are treated by people who have the power to help and institutions designed to protect them. To reveal more is to take away some of the film’s power and so I will refrain. But know that it is a clever piece of work and it should not be known simply as a movie shot on an iPhone 7.
The picture possesses an intriguing visual style. With an aspect ratio of 1:56:1, it appears as though we are looking inside a box, a highly personal memory that had been framed because someone had survived an experience. In addition, due to the genre being a thriller, it is especially apt because the square creates a claustrophobic feeling coupled with numerous images that look like they have been drained of color, particularly the majority of scenes that take place in a mental institution where our heroine, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), finds herself involuntarily committed after having talked to a counselor who deemed that she is a danger to herself and others.
Foy is highly watchable as the feisty Sawyer. Our protagonist is not easily defeated when things do not go her way. In fact, the more often she is let down by the staff, refusing to believe her claims that her longtime stalker (Joshua Leonard) is within the premises and working there, we sense the ember in her slowly growing to a flame. But is her stalker really there or has the trauma from her past finally began to touch upon her present life—now that she has a new job, a new apartment, a new life about five hundred miles from her initial experiences with stalking—in a manner that can no longer can pushed to the back of her mind? Is this her mind’s way of coping to the crippling loneliness that she denies in exchange for safety? I admired that the material does not wait till the last act to reveal the truth. In fact, to my surprise, it is revealed quite early.
A lesser performer may likely have chosen to play Sawyer as a typical damsel-in-distress. Foy, on the other hand, interprets the character as smart and driven, always thinking even if she is restrained to her bed after having broken some rules. Also, I enjoyed that just because the character is drugged, she is not reduced to a walking hallucination where we cannot trust what she experiences. It were as if Soderbergh, Bernstein, Greer, and Foy had watched ineffective modern horror-thrillers set in mental institutions and taken notes. Together, they aimed to correct what does not work from behind the camera, the writing, and the images seen on screen. They tell a realistic story that just so happens to be a thriller.
“Unsane” is not for viewers who expect a barrage of empty jump scares just because it is set in a creepy place and terrifying situations arise. It is, however, for those who appreciate the craft that must be carefully tuned behind effective slow-burn psychological thrillers, the suspense that grows and floods, and the inevitable catharsis that makes the experience worth our time investment. It leaves us something to think about.