Last summer, while doing promotion for the comedic caper film Logan Lucky, director Steven Soderbergh offered this morsel of advice in a Reddit AMA: “Get a script and an iPhone and start shooting. Seriously.”
A statement like that would seem slightly condescending from a director used to working with decently-sized budgets and Hollywood’s cream of the crop actors, yet just a few weeks before that AMA, Soderbergh had secretly wrapped filming on a new project shot with an iPhone camera—making him the first mainstream filmmaker to do so.
Unsane, the finished project, stars Claire Foy (The Crown) as Sawyer Valentini, a young bank analyst, recently moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, who suffers from intense, unstable anxiety and visions due to past trauma. She decides to take care of this by making an appointment with a counselor at Highland Creek, a psychiatric ward. Though, after answering one question a little too indirectly (and filling out an assessment form without going through the fine print) she is suddenly held against her will within the confines of the building for observational purposes.
As much as Sawyer attempts to set the record straight, she learns that any form of resistance will only make things worse, as her 24 hour stay extends into a week. The situation only worsens when Sawyer continually sees a man who looks exactly like her past stalker David (Joshua Leonard) and believes he is a member of the building’s staff. We’re left to wonder if this is really happening, or if this is all just in Sawyer’s head, which creates the impetus for what makes Unsane a gripping experience.
Claire Foy’s performance tactfully communicates this, and acts as the best reason to see Unsane; she is amazing in building an empathetic, relatable character, who’s not afraid to be ruthless when the opportunity presents itself. She single-handedly drives the entire film (save for a few sequences outside her character’s perspective) and is sure to be one of the 2018’s most remembered performances. She is foiled by co-star Joshua Leonard, who really comes into play during the second act, with a truly unsettling portrayal of beta male depravity.
Soderbergh, directing from a screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, slowly gives us answers over time, while also providing a thoughtful critique of the American mental health care system. If you’re even slightly familiar with the director this won’t be much of a surprise as it's material he’s covered in both Side Effects and The Knick. The people Sawyer meets within Highland Creek, from patients like talkative Nate (Jay Pharoah) and tortured shit-disturber Violet (a nearly-unrecognizable Juno Temple) to head-of-staff Dr. Hawthorne (Gibson Frazier) allow for meta-commentary on mental illness stigma, and the shady dealings that go on to keep these facilities afloat.
Much of the attention on Unsane has been geared towards Soderbergh’s decision to film the entire thing on iPhone 7 cameras. It certainly isn’t the first well-renowned feature film to be done this way (that honor goes to Sean Baker’s Tangerine), but Soderbergh is the first major Hollywood filmmaker to work within such confines. The level of immediacy and intimacy the camera resolution lends to the story, that sutures the audience into claustrophobic territory, makes for an ideal fit.
Soderbergh believes iPhones are ‘the future’ when it comes to filmmaking—for the high quality 4K resolution they afford and ability to be used in ways that larger, bulkier cameras wouldn’t be able to maneuver through without extensive pre-planning. The director has always been on the side of what possibilities digital options present, and while its certain that we aren’t going to be seeing huge blockbusters made in this format, Unsane nonetheless acts as an intriguing showcase for possibilities that lie in the furthered democratization of filmmaking.
In addition, the method lends itself to the more voyeuristic side of cinema, tapping into the audience’s desire to see without being seen, and utilizing a camera quality that is fairly commonplace. Unsane takes this conceit and runs with it, to the point of transfixing viewers with pure shock value. On another level, it does this in service of a story about how the digital era has caused us to willingly surrender privacy, only to gain paranoia of others watching and ready to take advantage of our lives. While Unsane does display a pulpy undercurrent, it’s the utilization of that real sense of fear and unease which makes for a purely thrilling experience.