Unsane is a prickly psychological medical drama turned stalker thriller, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Claire Foy. An ambitious film, captured using an iPhone camera, it takes on an otherworldliness. Much like the film Mommy, Unsane has an unconventional screen format, giving it a fish-eye perspective, warping the film experience and adding an extra layer to the sense of paranoia.
Soderbergh is familiar with the medical thriller genre, having directed Contagion and Side Effects. This bold new project has similarities in terms of that game, but comes off like a low-budget movie. The strange mix of television style thriller, Soderbergh’s cinematic treatment and attempts at creating an oddball masterpiece, make Unsane one of those films that’s constantly trying to stay unclassifiable.
The story follows a woman who has relocated from her small town, protecting her identity and trying to start a fresh chapter after being subjected to the advances of a stalker. Her new job and life take a turn for the worse when after a psychological assessment, she is admitted to a private care facility, under duress for observation and against her will. The film’s dark and disturbing, with similarities to films like Enemy and Monster. The otherworldliness, identity crisis and unpredictable atmosphere make it similar to Enemy. While the deviant, disturbing, violent and uncomfortable terrain have parallels with Monster.
“One does not simply fly over the cuckoo’s nest…”
Claire Foy was excellent in Breathe, opposite Andrew Garfield, and demonstrates her wonderful range with a full tilt performance. With little to no make-up, she undertakes a difficult, see-sawing role with great bravery and awareness. Keeping the audience slightly off-balance with a performance that walks the line between sane and insane is no easy feat and together with Soderbergh’s deft direction, she manages this remarkably well. She’s not alone, aided by several sharp supporting performances from Juno Temple, Joshua Leonard and Jay Pharoah.
Unsane seems to be competing for its own identity much like its lead, moving from psychological medical drama to cutthroat stalker thriller. Using an iPhone adds a touch of realism to the drama, making the experience much more visceral. The boxed screen format adds to the claustrophobic feeling, a great choice given the genre, and focuses the viewer’s attention. While the film could have been even darker, at times hinting at something more sinister, it remains dark, disturbing and unsettling.
While well-acted and visually pioneering, pushing off some well-worn tropes and venturing into some fresh genre territory in the process, the narrative is flawed with a number of plot holes. The claustrophobic and harrowing drama keeps you rooted in this challenging story. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s propensity to skip over one or two important narrative connects, distances one from the realism. While something of a saving grace and relief, this prevents Soderbergh’s bold effort from truly engraving itself in stone. While it will certainly leave some indelible marks on your mind, it stops short of brilliance, subverting the suspenseful atmosphere at times and loosening its grip on the audience. For those that enjoy dark psychological drama thrillers it will still have a great impact, but doesn’t do quite enough to make it a modern classic.
Still, it’s amazing to see what you can do with an iPhone and Soderbergh’s B-movie psychological drama thriller will serve as a great inspiration for budding filmmakers who have the talent and energy, but don’t have the budget. He reaffirms his own ability and opens the door for a new wave of filmmakers demonstrating that, as always, character and story can be just as powerful as big budget Hollywood productions if reinforced by good casting, passion and fresh new ways of thinking around shooting technique.
The bottom line: Prickly