Unsane first entered my consciousness with a barrage of internet articles from both film and tech websites about how special it was for being shot on iPhone 7 Plus. Its camera of choice is quite possibly the most talked-about aspect of the film, and it no doubt spawned numerous “feature films shot with a smartphone” novelty list articles. What these websites fail to mention was that the 2018 low-budget film directed by Steven Soderbergh is an incredibly effective thriller with scathing social commentaries.
Claire Foy is Sawyer Valentini, and she has a secret buried in her past. Years prior to the start of this film, Sawyer was stalked and harassed by a man named David Strine (Joshua Leonard). The trauma she suffered could scarcely be repaired by a restraining order and a new life in a city far from home; the past never ceased to haunt her. After a mental breakdown, Sawyer decides to seek professional aid to help her cope with her trauma. Under great distress, Sawyer accidentally signs herself up for a three-day-commitment in a mental institution, and to make matters worse, she discovers the man who ruined her chance to have a normal life now works in the very same facility as a health worker. Sawyer is trapped in the palms of her stalker.
Sawyer is helpless, and Unsane is utterly drenched in the feeling of helplessness. One can’t help but share Sawyer’s distress when all of her calls for help fall on deaf ears, and her attempts to get herself out of the mental institution quickly fall apart. Foy’s performance sears into my being as Sawyer’s frustration and desperation build. The stress of being caught in David’s web is wearing Sawyer down, and her worsening mental condition only gives her doctor an excuse to extend her stay. The powerful emotions coursing through this film are palpable. Unsane doesn’t hold back.
The appearance of Unsane is quite rough on the edges—the low production cost fully reflects on the quality of the cinematography. The film makes no effort to hide the limitation of an iPhone—digital noise during dimly-lit scenes was still visible despite myself sitting meters away from my television. On top of that, the camera movements are robotic and amateurish. Soderbergh said the camera choice was both a financial and artistic decision—the portability of an iPhone allowed the camera to get up close and personal. The cheap visuals of this movie may be a jarring contrast to the air of oppressive powerlessness conceived by Foy’s impressive performance and Soderbergh’s direction, but it is a perfect match to the unglamorous nature of Unsane’s social commentaries.
Unlike most protagonists in horrors/thrillers, Sawyer isn’t dealing with eldritch forces, nor is she combatting evil-incarnate serial killers. She struggles against insurance scam and a for-profit medical institution that makes her imprisonment possible. The stalker is only one part of Sawyer’s nightmare. Evil can take the appearance of corporate greed and apathy. There is no high-minded speech on the human condition at the end of the film; everything is laid bare in its mundane self. Perhaps the subject was part of the reason why Soderbergh decided to go for a low-budget production, or perhaps the studio did not approve of an unattractive condemnation of capitalism.
I want to say Unsane is a film that takes the stalker situation to its logical extreme, but I can not. Women facing unsolicited advances is not a fantastical scenario; it is something that happens to them every day. And to our society’s shame, some of these women have met worse ends than Sawyer Valentini. Unsane plays the game of “Is she? Isn’t she?” and toys with the possibility of Sawyer conjuring up the unrelenting suitor in her mind, but not for long. Sawyer is soon proved to be justified in her paranoia, spoiler alert, by the way. In a world where the word “crazy” is frequently thrown (as a form of dismissal) at women who fail to act according to men’s expected emotional states, by cutting the trope short, Unsane gives voice to the “crazy woman”. Sawyer and David’s confrontations are cathartic for that very reason.
Unsane hits it out of the park in the horror department, but it offers more than overflowing anxiety and frustration. The plain but powerful messages it holds with its unrefined B-movie aesthetics make Unsane a raw and unique viewing experience.
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