Steven Soderbergh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.56:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
Probably the best-known thing about Unsane is that Steven Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone. Well, he’s not the first person to shoot a feature on a phone, nor will he be the last, but I guess he must’ve been the most high-profile. It’s a shame that’s all people seemed to talk about, though, because the content of the film is worth a look too.
It’s a psychological horror-thriller starring Claire Foy as Sawyer, a young professional woman struggling with a past trauma, who tries to simply get an appointment with a counsellor but ends up accidentally committing herself to a mental hospital. Although initially only in for a 24-hour assessment, her attempts to get out are only seen as further proof she has problems, and her ‘voluntary’ stay is extended against her will.
This early part of the film plays more like a drama than a horror movie, in that it’s fairly grounded in plausible reality — it doesn’t seem to be some nefarious scheme that gets Foy incarcerated, but rather bureaucracy and misunderstanding. Later the film takes a swing into outright horror territory, and I’ll discuss that in a moment, but it’s the first act that is most genuinely frightening. Events move inexorably forward in such a way that you can imagine yourself in Sawyer’s shoes, imagine yourself making the same unwitting mistakes that she does, imagine what you might try in that situation to get out of it, and imagine how you’d fail just as badly as she does. The film doesn’t gloss over any “if only she’d done this it would’ve been fine” moments — she tries everything rational, and it still goes wrong.
But, as I said, later things change a bit: Sawyer claims that one of the men working at the hospital is actually her stalker. Obviously this just contributes to the staff thinking she’s deranged, because of course a mental health institution wouldn’t employ a convicted stalker, but it makes us wonder: is it the stress of the situation getting to Sawyer, making her see things? It would certainly be ironic — the place that’s meant to ‘make’ her sane actually driving her insane. Or maybe the staff are right, and Sawyer is an unreliable narrator?
From there the film only becomes further immersed in genre-ness. It loses that “what would you do?” aspect, but I was engaged enough by then to just go with the story; others have found the tonal shift jarring, however. It definitely keeps you guessing — even after a mid-way reveal, you’re still unsure what further twists it may or may not pull. But it’s a funny old movie, in a way, because the shift from believable real-life horrors to inhabiting a more overt Horror mode means it sits at a hitherto unimagined crossroads between schlocky madhouse B-thriller and arthouse psychological drama. Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing we should expect from Soderbergh by now: a genre movie reimagined with auteurist sensibilities. Even when it takes the shape of a B-movie thrill-ride, there remains some psychological truth to the trauma Sawyer’s suffered and how it affects her. It’s also casually damning of things like the US healthcare/insurance infrastructure, which is, of course, a real-life problem. It’s always nice to sneak a valid real-world point into what is essentially a thrills-and-chills flick.
The sense of unease is further emphasised by the shooting style, because it looks… odd. Odd how? It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s partly the aspect ratio, which for some reason is 1.56:1. I’m perfectly used to watching films in 4:3 or 1.66:1, so pillarboxing doesn’t bother me, but it being a nonstandard shape is surprisingly disconcerting. It also seems that Soderbergh hasn’t just used the iPhone camera as-is, but has attached at least one different lens. I suppose some might argue that’s cheating, but normal to add lenses to the basic camera in other modes of filmmaking, so why not? I’m no expert on lenses so can’t quantify what he’s done exactly, but there’s a sort of wide-angle, sometimes even fish-eye, effect that is, again, strange. Combine all that with an even-less-definable quality that seems to wash over the whole image, like it’s lacking resolution or definition or something, and I’m not sure if the film’s visual style is down to the limitations of the tech or if it’s a deliberate emphasis of them. Whatever the reason, it kinda makes me hope no one ever chooses to shoot a film on an iPhone again, because while it can be done, the results aren’t great.
And yet those results really do fit the mood of this film. I kinda hope no one copies that tech choice ever again, but, nonetheless, Soderbergh’s made it work for the story he’s telling. That story — with its ups and downs, it’s whiplash tonal changes, its very imaginable horrors and its only-in-a-movie ones — means the fact Unsane was shot on an iPhone is probably the least interesting thing about it.
Unsane is available on Sky Cinema as of yesterday.
Steven Soderbergh’s next film, High Flying Bird, was also shot on an iPhone. It’s released on Netflix on 8th February.