– By James Pemberton
Films shot on an iPhone is not a new concept yet when a director with a big name, such as Steven Soderbergh, decides to use the device to shoot his latest picture, then it’s certainly the first inclination of pushing the technology into a more mainstream frame of mind. Added to that there has certainly been a bit more hype and publicity behind UNSANE, which is the director’s second feature after returning back from a brief retirement and one that has been made under a shroud of secrecy with only a recent trailer being the first inclination, for many, of its existence.
Sawyer Valentini (Foy) is a career women focused on her job as a banking administrator, which seems to be the only thing keeping her occupied. However she has suffered in her past from an incident of stalking when she was living in Boston and which forced her to move to another city. Despite the restraining order and having to change much of her life outside of work, Sawyer still has vivid memories of her former stalker and it’s affected her friendships and relationships with others. Looking for help she finds the Highland Creek Behavioural Centre and after expressing her feelings to a counsellor, in which she mentions having some suicidal thoughts, she then signs a load of forms without reading them properly (bad move) and promptly finds herself committed into the psychiatric ward. Trying to convince the doctors that she isn’t insane is not helped when she is then convinced that one of the orderlies, George Shaw (Leonard), is her stalker. With only another patient, Nate (Pharoah), who has an ulterior motive for being in the hospital and her mother (Irving) on the outside, Sawyer becomes increasingly trapped in a system that isn’t convinced if those who have been committed are sane can prove they’re not insane and are more interested in by the numbers administration and bureaucracy.
Whilst the novelty of shooting on an iPhone is beneficial in the case of UNSANE the plot otherwise seems a bit more straightforward and almost unoriginal in execution. The asylum or mental health facility is an often used setting for a horror as it plays on the fear of the sane being committed to a place where the insane are kept. And with this the sane eventually turn insane in the process. With that said, Soderbergh does try and bring this narrative into present day, and this is where I might add that there will be some SPOILERS AHEAD in the rest of the review, so maybe read this later if you haven’t seen the film.
Sawyer learns from Nate that her incarceration is part of a scam by the hospital to get as much insurance money from individuals health insurance providers, as having people voluntarily committed for 7 days means more people in this situation, then the more the Highland Creek Behavioural centre will receive in insurance pay-outs. Whilst I’m not completely convinced that this is entirely true, I wouldn’t put it past America’s health insurance and medical practices to actually enact such an underhanded method. That being said I also find the explanation a bit bland and would have preferred it not being explained and leaving it to just having the character being locked up for no reason at all, to show that the authorities have the power to lock up and label anyone with mental problems, rather than it being an insurance money scam. This then leads the film into another criticism and one of the plot holes that will leave the viewer a bit confused. Eventually the hospital orderly Sawyer is convinced is her stalker turns out to be just that, and who we learn is actually called David Strine. Yet this doesn’t take into account how David actually got into the hospital and employed there in the first place, as we hear one of his colleagues state that he’s been there for some time. Further to this if he has already been employed there then how on earth did he know Sawyer would eventually be committed there. Maybe Soderbergh is sly in his intentions or in this case went along with the screenwriters and added more confusion and craziness in the final scenes to deliberately mirror the increasingly fragile state of mind of its central character? Either that’s it or instead it comes off as flawed, confusing and very sloppy, making you wonder if more intention was put on the shooting of the film than on its continuity.
Aside from this the performances are decent enough and Foy is excellent in her role as she tackles it straight and goes along with the ensuing confusion and schlock horror elements the film gradually enters into. Leonard makes a decent effort of his psychotic obsessed stalker, who comes off as more pitiful and pathetic than threatening in parts and there’s a great role from Juno Temple as a repellent, unhinged patient Violet, who greets Sawyer on her first night by throwing a used tampon at her. However the film’s creepier character belongs to a brief cameo from Matt Damon as a police officer advising Sawyer on the precautions she needs to take since she is now a victim of stalking, going through everything that will start to affect much of her work and social life, then offering her a book to read at the end of his monologue, called THE GIFT OF FEAR.
The use of the iPhone works in many respects as the film is presented and projected in a square format that’s almost akin to the old standard academy ratio. And whilst it’s shot in a 4K capture, there is a rough edge to it that benefits the latter parts of the picture which certainly is evident in many of the tracking shots and also adds a darkness to the film that fits perfectly. There is also a brilliantly hallucinatory sequence in which Sawyer is deliberately given a double dose of meds that send her into a crazed, confused mess, done by multi exposing the film, and standing out as one of the more intense and impressive scenes of the piece.
Admittedly the use of shooting on an experimental format will be one of the more memorable things about UNSANE in years to come and give credit to Soderbergh for using such a pared down style of shooting. But the film, whilst it does enter into an almost over the top style of horror flick in its final third, is hampered by confusion and plot holes that makes it feel that the final part has been rushed and is also lacking a bit in the originality department.