A woman forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital struggles to discern reality from delusion. It’s a classic, potentially problematic horror story that forms the basis of Unsane—a thrilling, gloriously schlocky psychological horror film from veteran director Steven Soderbergh (Oceans 11, Magic Mike, Logan Lucky). Soderbergh gives the genre an experimental twist, however; working on a low budget of AUD$2 million (around the same amount as his first film, 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape), Unsane was shot entirely on an iPhone. The film is a daring undertaking, both in the obvious technical challenges, and because of the politics it touches on. And Soderbergh pulls it off with aplomb.
Claire Foy, beloved star of The Crown series, plays Sawyer Valentini (yes, really), a banker who has moved jobs and states to escape a dangerous stalker. Traumatised by the experience, she seeks help from a counsellor, admitting that she has had suicidal thoughts and still sees the man everywhere. She fills in a few “routine” forms, is quickly led into the institution, and then told to give up her belongings and strip down to her underwear. She’s going to be held for a day of observation. Sawyer is understandably enraged, having been misled about the forms she signed, and is immediately hostile to everyone in the hospital. She comes into conflict with an unstable, threatening patient, Violet (Juno Temple), and is wary of a calm, supportive one, Nate (Jay Pharoah). Soon, Sawyer believes that one of the orderlies at the hospital is her stalker, bringing her sanity into question.
Claire Foy, so good at portraying restrained emotion and vulnerability as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, delivers a committed performance as a completely different kind of character. Sawyer is intelligent, abrasive, even obnoxious at times, and has a fierce determination to survive. She’s the polar opposite of a passive horror movie victim, and truly anchors the movie. Jay Pharoah, a Saturday Night Live alumnus, has a surprisingly good turn as a seasoned, empathetic fellow inmate, who has learned to cope with the routine. He has a theory about the hospital engaging in an insurance scam, and his own secretive motivation for wanting to tell the world about it.
Much of the buzz surrounding the film centres on the fact that it was shot entirely on an iPhone 7+ (by Soderbergh himself, no less). It’s not just a gimmick; the movie is stylistically built around this choice, creating a claustrophobic, grungy feel and an uneasy sense of voyeurism. A wide-angle lens, coupled with low angle shots, is frequently used to make objects and people loom large in the frame, an expressive choice for a story about a trapped protagonist. The portability and agility of the phone allows Soderbergh to dispense with heavy equipment and time-consuming setups, and to use a suite of inventive technical and formal tricks. He shows a confident, commanding sense of visuals, knowing when to ramp up the stylisation, and when to tone it down.
The camera movement, from ominous tracking shots through the hospital halls to precise dolly-ins, is dazzling but economical—used only when necessary. However, the early scene in which Sawyer is forcibly stripped of her belongings and clothes is filmed mainly in one wide, static shot, allowing the orderlies’ briskness and empty politeness to speak for itself. This anxiety-inducing, invasive conduct is simple procedure for them. Somehow, the film captures a lot of darkly lit scenes and locations, something that the tiny iPhone camera might struggle with in the hands of a mere mortal; but Soderbergh’s experience in colour grading and cinematography proves up to the challenge.
Several sequences in the film seem destined to become infamous. I’ve already heard fans discussing the “Blue Room” scene in reverent tones. In it, two characters have an intense, enclosed confrontation in a padded blue cell while the camera swirls around them, allowing the power dynamic to constantly shift. Another ingenious scene, in which the vision of two cameras strapped to Foy overlay each other as she undergoes a drug-induced, deranged episode, is a masterstroke of formal invention and visceral filmmaking.
Not everyone will be able to immediately make a blockbuster on a phone—the cinematic colour and low-light performance is something that can only come from an experienced filmmaker—but there’s a clear point here about the cost of your equipment mattering less than the story you’re using them to tell. As digital cinema cameras, DSLRs, and phone cameras become increasingly smaller, cheaper, and better, the democratisation of filmmaking is only going to continue. It won’t be long before some smart teenagers are going to be able to replicate a Hollywood-level aesthetic from their bedroom. From the behind-the-scenes information that has been released, the only noteworthy tricks used to sidestep the iPhone’s shortcomings were a $200 stabiliser (to remove shakiness from handheld footage) and a set of three $99 lenses. This is very, very cheap compared to similar equipment used for any other camera. To a wannabe filmmaker like myself, it’s hugely inspiring, and also a little daunting; I no longer have an excuse not to go out and shoot something.
Soderbergh has always infused thrills with sly commentary and intelligence, and Unsane is mostly successful in this regard. He, and writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, tackle the fall of the American healthcare system to rising greed, which fits well with the rest of Soderbergh’s oeuvre; the ever-present, corrosive effect of money on institutions and the individuals within them is one of his pet themes. There’s also some cultural relevance in the plot of a woman damaged by the harassment of a controlling, needy man, and the failure of institutions and people to believe Sawyer at every turn. It might not be the subtlest of commentary, but it’s still effective.
The use of mental illness in horror and thriller films is a long and potentially problematic tradition that Unsane slots into. Critics argue this subgenre furthers stigmatisation and misinformation surrounding sufferers of mental illness—which is a completely valid point to make. However, I feel this film is far more sympathetic to victims than most of its ilk, and is truly committed to representing the unnerving state of mind of sufferers of mental illness and trauma.
The plot twists and turns, fulfilling some expectations, while subverting others. Its descent into a delirious, somewhat implausible third act may prove divisive, but I thought it was executed with the same technical skill as the rest of the film. Unsane is a tight, disturbing 90 minutes of horror cinema that will serve as both nightmare fuel and cinematic inspiration.
Unsane is in cinemas now.