This psychological thriller by Steven Soderbergh (“Side Effects” (2013)) has the distinction of being the first theatrical feature film shot almost entirely on iPhone cameras, and the result is impressive. Claire Foy (“Breathe” (2017)) plays Sawyer Valentini, a career-driven young woman who has just started a new job in a new city. We are invited to question her sense of reality when she becomes obsessed with the apparent stalking behaviour which is going on around her with her being the primary victim. When Sawyer is invited to spend a few days in a mental institution to rest and gather her wits, her apparent paranoia and delusions intensify. Soderbergh employs iPhone cameras very cleverly to both critique the provision of mental health help and to show Sawyer’s mounting psychological problems.
Our main character – Sawyer Valentini – is a troubled businesswoman, and it only makes sense to start the film with corporate culture, sometimes portrayed by the media as offering purely artificial working environment with impersonal service. In such artificially-constructed environs, it often takes awhile to distinguish genuineness from fakeness. Then, we quickly move to Sawyer’s internal struggles. The great merit of this movie is that Soderbergh cleverly plays with our expectations and preconceptions as he tells the story and makes us constantly question Sawyer’s sanity. Is she completely insane? Is there, maybe, some sense in her allegations? Or, perhaps, only some parts of her statements do not ring true? Even the ambiguous title “Unsane” makes the whole plot questionable. “Unsane” may mean some state between complete “sanity” and total “insanity”: Sawyer does not appear completely sane, but is she really insane?
People who are into delicious dissections of “psychiatry” issues will also find a lot to love in “Unsane”. The film plot brings to mind the mental hospital critique of Erving Goffman (see “Asylums” (1961)) and the notorious Rosenhan experiment (see “On Being Sane in Insane Places” (1973) publication and my list of “Top Ten Films Featuring Mental Hospital You Should See”). The critique of the psychiatry methods or medical drugs’ usage becomes something else in the movie later on, but that is not necessarily a turn for the worse. We become acquainted with Sawyer’s full story and the truth does emerge in the final sequences, but, before that, we are invited to consider carefully the divide between irrational and rational behaviours, a fine line which is often dependent on a context, as well as to contemplate the meaning of a condition “normal sad” as opposed to “dangerous sad”.
If there is any film plot best suited to the iPhone camerawork then “Unsane” possesses just this narrative material. An iPhone lens enables the feeling of covert spying going on somewhere in the background, and the unedited everyday camerawork gives the feeling of immediate reality, while also hinting at distortions in perspectives. Eerily, the iPhone camera gets close and personal to our main heroine in “Unsane”, frighteningly amplifying her internal mental distortions. For example, the camera focuses on Sawyer’s face, contorting its features because of a magnifying effect, providing us both with more immediate experience and with spookier visions. It is this close-up technique aimed at somehow distorting the features of a character’s face which was used so successfully in Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), showing the gradual mental decline of the heroine there.
Claire Foy, who previously distinguished herself mainly through her TV series roles (see “The Crown” (2016-17) and “Upstairs Downstairs” (2010-12)), performs remarkably here in “Unsane”. It is partly due to Foy’s committed performance that we do not really know what to believe in the film. Foy’s character does appear very irrational at times, but, somehow, Foy also manages to keep us sympathising with her character’s plight and to side with her character’s battle against the institution. The other stand-out performance is that given by Juno Temple (“Atonement” (2007)) in a difficult role of demented Violet, another patient at the asylum. Other cast choices are more baffling. For example, the cameo appearance of Matt Damon in this movie is both surprising and, actually, annoying, because the presence of such a “star” on the set is, clearly, very needless.
As is the case with Soderbergh’s “Side Effects”, the overall effect of “Unsane” may prove to be a bit underwhelming, especially considering the very improbable plot lines (bringing the seriousness of the material down) emerging later on. However, what inevitably heightens the film’s viewing experience is Soderbergh’s skill at documentary-like presentation. In “Contagion” (2011), the director expertly managed to fuse a sense of immediacy and realism with some unbelievable ideas on display, and some touches of that brilliance can also be seen in “Unsane”.
This claustrophobically-disturbing film may rely on very improbable turns of events, but the interesting and questioning premise, the great performance by Claire Foy and enough visual originality all keep the entertainment flowing and interest maintained. The result is a very effective psychological thriller from a director already well-versed in the topic. 8/10