Cast: Claire Foy, Josh Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple
Director: Steven Soderberg
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes: A young woman is involuntarily committed to a mental institution where she is confronted by her greatest fear–but is it real or is it a product of her delusion?
Regardless of what you feel about Steven Soderberg’s previous films, you have to admit the man is dedicated to his work and is willing to explore previously uncharted territory to see if there is something great out there. The main story to emerge from this movie is that it was filmed entirely on iPhone 7’s and edited with the FiLMiC Pro app that you can buy in the Apple Store for $14.99. There are certain moments where this pays off in a big way, while at other times it just looks messy and distracting. Combine this with a strong performance by Foy and a story that keeps you guessing and you get a risky movie that for the most part paid off.
The story follows Sawyer Valentini (Foy) as she moves to Philadelphia to avoid her stalker David (Leonard) back in Boston. Still suffering from depression and anxiety from David’s actions, Sawyer goes to a counselor to discuss her stalking and ends up committing herself to a mental institution for 24 hours. After a series of outbursts, she ends up extended her time in the institution and that is where she must come to terms with her past and face off against a new set of impossible circumstances. Focusing on the acting, Foy is incredible in the lead role. She really sells the idea that we do not know whether or not she is telling the truth or if her mind is playing tricks on her. The script makes it very clear Sawyer is just as unstable as some of the other patients in the institution, but her feeling of superiority towards them is unjustified, and Foy demonstrates her skills by making us sympathize with her with situation, but not necessarily her behavior. I am looking forward to seeing her in Damien Chazelle’s First Man as Foy continues her rise in Hollywood. She has a great chemistry with Nate (Pharaoh) as they bond over the fact that this institution is corrupt and they abuse their patients. Outside of that, while the story is pretty straightforward, it can flimsy and hard to believe at times. Sawyer is clearly a smart young woman, but some of her actions in the institution are pretty stupid. I know she is not the most mentally stable person in the world, but some of her decision-making is more focused on moving the plot along instead of acting like she usually would.
You cannot have a discussion about Unsane without talking about the cinematography. Filming with an iPhone has its risks, and I am still not sure if all of them paid off. Starting with the first I noticed, the aspect ratio did not fit the full theater screen. While it was odd to see at first, I felt as though it added another level of claustrophobic feeling to film, making the viewer feel as trapped as the patients in the asylum. Another thing is the emphasis on the color blue and the hues and shades of it that are shown in the opening scene as well as much of the third act. The link between blue and mental illness is cleverly woven in without being over the top about, and this subtle detail is a nice touch. In regards to the lighting, I really enjoyed how the lighting showed how each person was feeling and how much power they had in the situation. The best example of this during the scene between Sawyer and David in solitary confinement, where they show that the individual in power has their whole face in the light while those in a position of weakness have their face in darkness. As the tone of the conversation shifts, we see how the lighting changes with it, and you can see how precise and detailed this decisions were. While all of these things were fantastic because of the use of an iPhone, that does not make it the best camera of all time. The quality of the footage was very grainy and low-budget. While this worked at the institution due to help convey the misery that goes on there, a better camera could have made every non-institution scene look better. Other than that, the steadiness of the camera was questionable at times. There are many scenes, particularly with Sawyer running or in a state of distress where the camera is shaking all over the place. This is a shame, because there is one beautiful long shot of Sawyer running through the halls of the institution that is steady and does not have any cuts. If these lower quality scenes were anything close to that of the previously mentioned long shot, this would not be a problem.
Overall, Soderberg took some risks by filming with an iPhone, but for the most part I think most of them paid off. While filming with an iPhone may have worked for Unsane I do not see it as the future of film. I believe these risks paid off due to the subject matter of the film and the fact that Soderberg is such an organized and passionate director. These technical elements plus an elevating performance by Foy make Unsane a solid if not uneasy film to watch.
Overall Score: 7/10