Unsane is an interesting experiment; not necessarily in terms of the content, but rather through its production. Director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11, Logan Lucky) caused a media splash after it was announced that this latest film would be shot entirely on an iPhone 7. In spite of this unorthodox production, Unsane remains a consistently engaging and tightly knight thriller, one that utilizes its short runtime and limited resources to its advantage. It’s the kind of rough, guerilla indie filmmaking that rarely hits multiplexes, and when it does, it’s an unexpected treat.
Rebel Without a Crew
Unsane was not a very exorbitant production. The total number of cast and crew members is shockingly small for any kind of wide release, which matches the kind of efficient and intentionally non-glamorous vibe of the entire film. When most audiences hear that a film is being shot on an iPhone, they assume it will look and feel cheap, but surprisingly I found myself forgetting about this once the story got going. An occasional outdoor shot with overexposed lighting would break the facade a bit, but for the vast majority of the film that takes place indoors, it’s perfectly fine. The rougher look lacks the kind of visual flair you may expect from an experienced director, but actually ends up helping the atmosphere of the experience, creating something that feels much more convincing and unsettling when the tension begins ramping up.
It’s All In Your Head
The idea of a protagonist who thinks they’re healthy ending up trapped in a mental hospital isn’t the most original concept for a horror film (the most recent example I can think of is last year’s A Cure for Wellness) but what makes Unsane so effective is how believable the process is. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) manages to get across a tremendous amount of dread as the process goes from feeling like a normal counseling session to realizing she’s unable to escape. All of her attempts to convince the staff into letting her leave end up backfiring, as she soon finds herself confronted by a demon from her past. What the film builds towards is the question of whether or not Sawyer is actually suffering from some sort of significant mental illness or if the person she thinks is stalking her is actually her stalker and not just a stranger. Unsane chooses to play its hand earlier than you might expect, trading off mystery for tension in a clever moment of visual filmmaking that may have come a bit sooner than it should have.
Unsane and Uneven
As all the pieces fall into place, Unsane embraces its inner B-movie nature with a climactic ten-minute sequence that brings down the overall experience with some dialogue and acting that seems to be aware that it isn’t very convincing. But it rolls with it anyway and what begins as a cold and rough look at a very realistic nightmare ultimately becomes an over the top (albeit entertaining) display of gore and shocks that don’t quite gel with the overall experience. Much of the first hour’s effectiveness comes from how stripped back everything looks and feels; most of the horror here does not come from jump scares or musical cues, but rather a creeping sense of dread and uneasiness that had me feeling legitimately unnerved for a majority of the runtime. To see this delve into a more typical horror experience was somewhat disappointing, but never ruined the experience. This final act is also where we see one of the very few instances of the phone-based presentation falter, as a sequence which is intended to take place at night is very clearly shot during the day and altered with some incredibly artificial looking color correction. It was a distracting and unfortunate decision that I understand the stylistic reasoning behind, but the way this affects the events unfolding on screen never quite sat right with me.
Unsane is a solid psychological thriller, one which makes intensely effective use of its bare-bones production and realistic premise to make an unnerving cinematic experience, even if it falters in its final act by delving into the tropes that define the B-movie genre which it borrows from so heavily. Claire Foy’s performance is fantastic, and director Steven Soderbergh clearly knows how to make this idea work with excellent lighting and camera movement. It’s experimental and different, but genre fans in need of a scaled-back thriller will find it to be satisfying and unique, an interesting milestone for the future of independent filmmaking.