A film review by Craig J. Koban March 31, 2018

UNSANE jjj
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2018, R, 96 mins.

 

Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini  /  Joshua Leonard as David Strine  /  Jay Pharoah as Nate  /  Juno Temple as Violet  /  Aimee Mullins as Ashley Brighterhouse  /  Amy Irving as Angela Valentini  /  

Directed by Steven Soderbergh  /  Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer 

 

 

 

 

Iím not sure whatís more fascinating and amazing about UNSANE: 

(1) That a veteran A-list Oscar winning filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh - fresh out of self-imposed retirement - shot this film using nothing but an iPhone or (2) that - in spite of 1 - his film still packs a potent visceral punch as a psychological thriller that also has his esoteric fingerprints all over it.  

Once again, as he normally does, Soderbergh commits triple duties here as director, director of photography, and editor (under multiple pseudonyms, two of which being his parent's names), but the main difference this go around is the technology quarterbacking his project.  UNSANE (horrible title, by the way) was shot on the iPhone 7 Plus and using the FiLMiC Pro app, resulting in a tighter than normal aspect ratio and a grainy, washed out, and muted looking film, which he believes is "the future" of filmmaking. 

Now, bold and hyperbolic claims like that aside, I believe that shooting on the iPhone is a commendably calculated risk for Soderbergh, who has always maintained a career for embarking on tricky experiments with his films and pushing the medium in terms of what can be done arguably more than most (granted, some of his experiments have paid off handsomely, whereas some have not).  He's certainly not the first director to make a film using phone cameras, but he's most definitely the most high marquee, and if you are willing to overlook the visual limitations of his choices, there's simply no denying that it oddly works for the intended eerie and claustrophobic effect that he's trying to channel in this pulpy B-grade stalker thriller.  UNSANE has this remarkably visual flexibility (born, no doubt, out of being able to put the iPhone just about anywhere that larger cameras can't), which gives the proceedings a sense that we really are in the main character's fragile headspace.  That, and UNSANE contains an absolutely committed performance by Claire Foy (of Netflix's THE CROWN) that has to suggest a woman that's perhaps insane...or perhaps in charge of her mental faculties, and all while everyone else around her thinks she's gone bonkers. 

 

 

Soderbergh and his screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer also have a bit more up their sleeve that dishing out grindhouse thrills, though.  There are some compelling thematic layers in UNSANE about the nature of gender power struggles and how women frequently struggle to be heard by men and institutions that are frankly not listening.  There's also some pointed commentary about the nature of mental health care in America and how broken systems (like hospitals and the police) fail to heed the warnings of people they deem as paranoid or sick.  Part of what makes UNSANE so undeniably nerve-wracking is that it delves into universal fears that many women have in trying to tell a story of survival against manipulative men that want to possess and own them like objects...and having no one believe them.  UNSANE dives into all of these intriguing ideas headfirst with a real lean and mean economy and never looks back. 

The beleaguered woman in question is Sawyer Valentini (Foy), who seems to be acclimating well to her finance sector job after moving away from Boston to Pennsylvania in order to get away from a man that was ruthlessly stalking her.  She seems to have her head on her shoulders, but she's constantly driven by nagging impressions that the world is increasingly suffocating her, not to mention that she often has visions that her stalker is around every corner trying to get her on a daily basis.  After a Tinder hook-up goes horribly wrong for her, leading to an emotional breakdown, Sawyer decides that the time is right to talk to someone.  She ventures to a psychiatric facility one day before work, speaks to someone in what appears to be a solid two-way exchange, and then is asked to fill out a few papers.  When she tries to leave she's told that she must stay for 24 hours for observation, because the doctor that interviewed her believed that she's a threat to herself and those around her on the outside world.   

Rather predictably, Sawyer begins to freak out, which doesn't help her situation.  She's forced against her will to hand in all of her personal effects and submit to a strip search.  Her attempts to get her mother (Amy Irving) over to the hospital to get her out are failures, mostly because Sawyer signed documents that she clearly didn't read the fine print on, which means that, legally, the hospital is in her right to keep her for the short term.  Things spiral out of control for her when she's confronted by a violence prone patient, Violet (Juno Temple), which leads to a physical altercation with her that only makes matters worse.  Then she sees a hospital order that looks exactly like her Bostonian stalker (a quiet spokenly menacing Joshua Leonard from the original THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), which causes her to go off the mental deep end and culminates with her attacking him.  Because of her reckless and erratic behavior, the head doctor informs her than she will have to stay another week.  This sends Sawyer into panic mode, but she does find some solace in a kindly patient, Nate (Jay Pharaoh), that tells her in private that all is not what it appears at the hospital. 

The overall narrative thrust of UNSANE is the *is she or isn't she completely insane* angle to Sawyer's nightmarish predicament.  Part of the devilish joy that Soderbergh has here is in drumming up the undulating sense of unease as to the reliability of his protagonist's honesty and mental health.  Is Sawyer a horrendously unlucky victim placed in remarkably dangerous situation in close proximity to her stalker or is she nuttier than a proverbial fruitcake and that kind orderly is just that...an hospital worker that she mistakes for her stalker because she's nuts?  UNSANE is littered with juicy and unnerving little twists throughout and, unlike other recent psychological thrillers, Soderbergh is more concerned with building slow burn suspense and terror than he is with making his film become a one-note jump scare and action heavy vehicle.  The longer the film progress the more hopelessly futile Sawyer's predicament becomes, to the point that every time she tries to express concerns about her situation she's dealt with the nasty hospital unpleasantries.  And her behavior becomes more unhealthily unhinged the less people listen to her, which only further accentuates this film's aura of the world closing in around her with no help in sight. 

Claire Foy is the dramatic glue that holds everything tightly together here, and she's hypnotically sensational in showing the anxiety plagued Sawyer going through the emotional and physical ringer throughout the story.  Much like the script, Foy never overly telegraphs early on whether her character is a mentally stable woman trying to disprove her sanity or a deeply sick woman prone to wild hysteria.  Foy gives such a deeply layered and intense performance here of astonishing range that propels the film forward with a propulsive energy.  She's complimented by strong supporting actors, especially Jay Pharaoh - who was a fixture on SNL form 2010 to 2016 - that gives UNSANE a subtly comedic edge that never feels forced.  He's also a nice foil to Sawyer in the sense that he's the calm and collected voice of reason that helps her unravel and understand all of the conspiring forces against her that impede her freedom.  Pharaoh has a nice understated charm about him as an actor that so many other fellow SNL alumni turned movie stars don't have. 

And then, yes, there's that business of Soderbergh shooting UNSANE on the iPhone 7.  It's abundantly clear from the opening shot that the film visually looks...well...kind of amateurish; the lens distorted 1.56:1 framing takes a bit of getting used to, not to mention that there's an inherent jerkiness to camera pans and dolly shots at times and a genuine lack of clarity and depth of field to some shots.  Even though Soderbergh - rather incredulously - has stated that no one would notice that this film was shot with a phone, it's almost impossible to ignore that throughout its 97 minute running time.  UNSANE looks and sounds exactly what you'd think a feature would be like if shot with an iPhone.  Yet, there's still an inherent simplistic power that Soderbergh brings to compositions and editorial flow, as well as the aesthetic fact that the whole film feels like you're watching chilling surveillance footage.  UNSANE intentionally looks like garbage, to be sure, but it somehow works within the film's aims to drum up an unsettling atmosphere of pure unease.  UNSANE's garishness oddly draws you in.   

Soderbergh loses his way a bit in the final few scenes, and the manner that UNSANE seems to have a difficult manner of simply ending in a satisfying manner holds in back from achieving the visceral gut punch of the entire build up to it.  And considering the risks that Soderbergh takes with the material and technology utilized to bring his vision to fruition, UNSANE seems to devolve down some obligatory genre conventions - and gets bogged down in some annoying plot holes - that are hard to shake (there's one final scene that's also beyond unnecessary).  Yet, UNSANE is so chilling to the bone as a fiendishly well crafted and stupendously acted suspense thriller that you can really sense the free wheeling joy that Soderbergh had in making it.  Plus, I applaud any veteran filmmaker that tries new things to push the medium audaciously forward in ways that so very few others do, especially at a relative stage in Soderbergh's long career that would have lesser filmmakers unwilling to stray away from artistic comfort zones.   

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