Unsane is the latest offering from ‘hit and miss’ director Steven Soderbergh (of Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven fame) which promises audiences a unique thriller that throws convention to the wind. Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, this American psychological horror film follows troubled office-worker Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, The Crown) as she is terrorised by an insane stalker all the way into a mental institution.
Soderbergh is well known for his experimental filmmaking and has once again tried out something new in Unsane. He shot the entire film using an iPhone 7 Plus and edited the footage using a filmmaking app. The mysterious build-up around the film has been intense since it was announced in July last year that Soderbergh had shot a film in secret starring Claire Foy and UK actress Juno Temple. The cast also includes Joshua Leonard as titular stalker plus Jay Pharoah, Aimee Mullins, and Amy Irving.
The film starts off with Sawyer starting a new job in a new city. The first few scenes show that she is often plagued with bouts of anxiety—all stemming from a mysterious stalking incident from her past. After freaking out at the prospect of a one-night-stand with a handsome stranger she seeks out support groups for victims of harassment. She then books an appointment at a nearby hospital. After speaking to a counsellor, Sawyer is asked to sign a few forms, which she does without reading them through. This results in Saywer accidentally committing herself to the hospital psychiatric ward for a 24 hour observation period. Over this period she gets into a fight with a fellow patient which results in a longer stay. The tension is further heightened when she recognises one of the orderlies as her stalker from the past. With no one believing her story, Sawyer sets out to escape the man who has made her his obsession and discovers why she was tricked into the psych ward in the first place.
While this film may look to outsiders like your standard thriller, it offers more than your average ‘cat and mouse’ game. The dynamic between Sawyer and her stalker is more modern than most. Instead of killing her cat or writing “I love you” in blood on the walls, her stalker David sends her flowers at work, bombards her with unwanted texts and breaks into her apartment to shower her with unwanted presents.
While Foy’s performance as the troubled Sawyer is admirable, it is Joshua Leonard that steals the show as stalker David. David is not your average cinematic stalker, complete with crazy eyes, a weird sexual obsession with his victim and a manic, imposing personality. He is a much more familiar type of stalker; the so-called “nice guy” that fantasises about the just out of reach Sawyer, texting her all the time, sending her gifts and trying to act as her white knight. He often refers to “looking after her”, working while she stays home with their ‘future’ children and talks about living off the grid to create their own happy home.
While Sawyer and David’s interactions make up a large part of the film, for me there was not enough tension between the two. What I found more unsettling in the film was the subplot about the mental ward patient scam. I don’t want to give away this part of the film, so I won’t explain this in detail. I will say, however, that it does make you think. I am sure many of us have clicked ‘yes’ on a set of terms and conditions without having a good read through. What is haunting about Sawyer’s accidental stay in the psych ward is that it seems so plausible.
The film is clearly another experiment by Soderbergh and it shows; you can tell something is a little off with the cinematography, but that is part of the appeal. The actors look real and untouched, which adds to the tension. It’s refreshing to see accessible technology used in such a way, which is a great way to inspire young filmmakers who are just starting out.
While Unsane is an edgy little thriller that offers its audience something new—technology wise—it falls a little flat due to a few unfortunate scripting errors. The film defies convention by revealing one of the twists early on, and unfortunately fails to provide the audience with another juicy plot point to sink their teeth into, which results in a lack of tension in the latter part of the film.
Still, it’s an interesting experience, especially for anyone interested in filmmaking and worth a watch for its experimental nature and its break from conventional thriller tropes.