By Andrew Cripe, Movie Critic
The biggest draw of ‘Unsane’ threatens to be its biggest turn off: it was shot entirely on an iPhone 7. The visual quality of it, at first glance, is off-putting, yet if you sit down and let the story unfold before you, there’s a great chance you’ll get swept up by the intense yet weirdly wonderful uniqueness of it all.
Director Steven Soderbergh (‘Magic Mike’, ‘Logan Lucky’) isn’t in the business of making gimmick-films, but cinematic gourmet meals with the kinds of stories and moments you can sink your teeth into. He’s been making movies for 30 years and knows the medium so intimately and thoroughly that he inherently understands how to craft a compelling film, no matter the resources.
We meet Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a woman who is trying to create a new life for herself after having her old one torched by an obsessive stalker (Joshua Leonard). Despite her best efforts, her PTSD pushes her to the brink of a nervous breakdown, so she goes to a mental institution for counseling. After confiding that she has had suicidal thoughts in the past, she is not allowed to leave.
To make matters worse, she believes her stalker has found a way into the facility. The viewer learns early on that Sawyer sometimes sees things that aren’t there, so in an unspoken way the film asks the viewer a big question: will you believe her, or will you doubt her? The decision you make at this juncture will affect the way you watch the entire film.
This is not a typical horror film. There are no jump scares or out-of-left-field moments of gore. What will make you cringe is how the characters are shot.
We don’t so much discover Sawyer in the beginning of the film as creep on her, as she is shot from corners and angles that suggest she is being intensely watched by someone other than the viewer. There are also a series of intense close-ups that will make you claw at your seat. The movie doesn’t want to scare you, it wants to make you sweat.
The narrative’s power is in the attention it pays to Sawyer’s state of mind. When her anxiety kicks up, the film itself begins to cave in on her. The setting of the institution is creepy, troubling, and suffocating.
The iPhone cinematography adds another layer of claustrophobia, as Soderbergh uses everything from the visual aesthetic of the device to the gravelly sound quality to drive home how vulnerable Sawyer is and how bleak her situation is becoming.
Foy’s fierce, desperate performance works so well with the filmmaking that eventually the barrier between Sawyer the character and Claire Foy the actress dissolves, and we begin to watch a real person.
Screenwriters James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein hit all the right notes with Sawyer, and the best scene of the film comes towards the end when she is locked in a padded room. It’s a mesmerizing moment, and everything she says is wrenching, on-point, and memorable.
But Greer and Bernstein make some missteps when they begin to focus on a subplot involving an insurance scam that the hospital is tied up in, which introduces us to characters who break up the nerve-wracking tone the film did such a great job of establishing.
This is a tough-sell of a movie. The look of it will take some getting used to for many viewers. But if you give it a chance, you’ll discover a cinematically daring, rare, provocative, all-around terrific nail-biter. It does falter at points, but the core of it will take you for a hellish, stylish, unnerving journey.