I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a sucker for low-budget, experimental horror flicks (if one couldn’t tell by my exceptionally high praise for Patrick Brice‘s Creep 2 and Trey Edward Shults‘ It Comes at Night). There’s something so creatively liberating about this small niche of cinema that I almost always thoroughly enjoy. Whatever it is, the filmmakers clearly feel free to experiment with narrative, cinematography, and music in ways that fulfill the tonal contract of their genre and leave lasting impressions on horror enthusiasts.
Steven Soderbergh‘s latest film Unsane falls more into the category of thriller than horror, but it nonetheless exhibits that same experimentation of which I’ve grown quite fond. Shot entirely on an iPhone, Soderbergh’s B-movie thriller is a film that combines artistically ambitious presentation with an edgy, uneven narrative that somehow just feels right in the moment. Though it’s undeniably imperfect, and will likely frustrate some audiences, Unsane is just the right flavor of psychological thriller that makes it a worthwhile and engaging experience.
The Crown‘s Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a stalking victim who seeks therapy at a mental institution with the menacingly-neutral name of Highland Creek. After a seemingly routine appointment with a therapist, she’s given paperwork to fill out for her next steps in treatment. By signing on the dotted line, Sawyer has been tricked into voluntarily committing herself to the asylum. She is herded into a room, instructed to strip and change into a hospital gown, and then locked in a ward with other patients. It’s a humiliating and panicked sequence, but the frighteningly inescapable banality of the whole ordeal is what leaves the strongest impression. Sawyer is quickly stripped of both her rights and basic dignity, humiliated and rendered a prisoner. Any protests that she was deceived are lost on the apathetic staff.
To make matters worse, Sawyer soon believes her stalker has taken up occupation at the asylum. The narrative entertains the somewhat cliché possibility that Sawyer is actually crazy and seeing her stalker through her paranoia, but briskly closes that door. Her stalker, David (Joshua Leonard), really has started working at Highland Creek. Sawyer is trapped in a place where a man in a position of power is terrorizing her, and no one seems to believe her. If that’s not an appropriately reflective parable for recent events, I don’t know what is.
Unsane’s cast is small but worthy of mention. In his Letterboxd review of the film, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich jokingly compared Claire Foy to a pre-Tim Burton Helena Bonham Carter, and this is actually a spot-on description of Foy’s performance. As the hospital continues to restrain and dehumanize Sawyer, Foy brings a sort of defiant, rebellious air to her character that is strangely reminiscent of Carter’s less eccentric roles. Rather than taking the advice of her fellow inmate Nate (Jay Pharoah) and keeping her head down, Sawyer loses her temper frequently when David and other patients harass her. Unfortunately, what we see as her refusal to submit to oppression, the doctors see as proof of her mental instability. Dramatic irony is king in Unsane’s script, and it works exceptionally well for the film to emphasize how isolated and hopeless Sawyer’s situation is.
To his credit, Joshua Leonard’s David also makes for a compellingly written and acted villain. Even as we learn to hate how repulsive and creepy he is, we can’t help but feel a twinge of pity for him. David is the epitome of an awkward, sexually frustrated white male, with just a pinch of violent instability to spin him into a truly evil villain. He showers Sawyer with praise and childlike affection, claiming he knows “everything about her”, but resorts to violent extremes whenever an obstacle stands in his path. He feels so disgustingly entitled to Sawyer as an object that he can’t possibly comprehend her saying no to him.
The highlight of both Foy and Leonard’s acting takes place towards the climax of the film, during a prolonged and intense confrontation between them. Both actors make full use of the claustrophobic space they’re given, acting with not just their faces and words, but with their body language as well. David pathetically crawls on the floor towards Sawyer like the predator he is, while she fearfully huddles in a corner, doing the best to hold her ground with humiliating taunts. The way their conversation twists and turns is simultaneously mesmerizing and sickening, as we watch David’s mind and emotions unravel and collapse in front of us in the dimly lit room.
Much of the popular attention to the film, both positive and negative, has been cast on Soderbergh’s decision to shoot exclusively with an iPhone 7+. Though I was initially skeptical of the choice, I actually found myself surprisingly pleased with the look. As one could expect, shooting a feature length film on an iPhone does not yield a clean and professional-looking product, but it nevertheless gives the film a uniquely fitting outfit. Make no mistake, while Unsane is a well-made film, it’s still done very much in the spirit of a B-movie, and no facet reflects that as perfectly as its cinematography.
There’s a weird dichotomy to the lo-fi way that Unsane is shot with the clear expertise behind the camera and script. It looks and feels exactly like what it is: a student film made by a veteran director, with all the characteristic nervous energy and hit-or-miss ambition that comes with that. In this case, the iPhone quality is almost a weird hybrid of the gritty 16mm film of 70’s exploitation and 2000’s found footage horror, taking the best of both without having to work around the narrative inconvenience of a first-person perspective. That’s why it works so well here. The iPhone gives a sense of intimacy and immersion, but also a feeling of menacing sterility to the hopelessly claustrophobic hospital setting.
Unsane is one of those movies that’s destined to split critics and audiences. I personally loved the purposeful lo-fi nature of the iPhone cinematography, while others have criticized it for simply existing as poor camerawork and lighting. I also found both Claire Foy and Joshua Leonard’s acting wonderfully uncomfortable and energetic, while some have found them painfully unlikable. It’s certainly worth acknowledging that Unsane is far from a pinnacle of cinema. However, for an edgy B-thriller, it’s a well-realized and entertaining production that boasts some frighteningly relevant themes in the wake of #MeToo.