Unsane (2018)

2018 #219
Steven Soderbergh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.56:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Unsane

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.

Hello, Domino's?

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.

Just say no

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 it’s 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, its 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.

4 out of 5

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.

Another Month Bites the Dust: The Monthly Update for October 2018

Another month gone and another month gone, another month bites the dust. Hey, I’m gonna get November too! Another month bites the dust!

(So, I didn’t actually get to see Bohemian Rhapsody this month, but I thought of this title and it was too good to miss.)


#207 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011)
#208 Prevenge (2016)
#209 Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)
#210 TiMER (2009)
#211 Suspiria (1977)
#212 Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999), aka Jin-Rô
#213 Matinee (1993)
#214 Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966), aka Zatôichi umi o wataru
#215 The Night Comes for Us (2018)
#216 The Producers (1967)
#217 Rocky Balboa (2006)
#218 It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
#219 Unsane (2018)
#220 The Lives of Others (2006), aka Das Leben der Anderen
#221 Phantom Thread (2017)
#222 Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Suspiria

Phantom Thread

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  • This month I watched 16 new films. It’s not the best month of the year, but it’s not the worst, either.
  • It beats the October average (previously 13.8, now 14.0), but not the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 21.0, now 20.4), nor the average for 2018 to date (previously 22.9, now 22.2).
  • One of those 16 was Rocky Balboa, which means I’ve now watched all the main Rocky films for the first time this year. That wasn’t the plan when Rocky scraped onto my WDYMYHS list in last place! But at some point I made the conscious decision to finish them (rather than let them spread out indefinitely, like many other series I’m in the middle of), and I’ve enjoyed them all (even Rocky V). With Creed II out at the end of November, I intend to get fully caught up on the entire Rocky legacy very soon.
  • This month’s Blindspot film: colourful and sonically bombastic horror in Dario Argento’s original Suspiria. I’ve been saving it all year for this month (for hopefully obvious reasons), and it didn’t disappoint.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film: superb behind-the-Berlin-wall dramatic thriller The Lives of Others. And, as I only do ten of them, that’s the final WDYMYHS film for 2018!



The 41st Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Lots of enjoyable films this month, including some high-quality Oscar winners… but it was October, aka horror month, which just tips the scales in favour of Suspiria. It was the first Dario Argento film I’ve seen, but I look forward to experiencing more.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
There’s no point beating about the bush: it was definitely The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1.

Best Demonstration That Shooting On Film Is Still Better of the Month
Phantom Thread may’ve looked gorgeous in 35mm-derived UHD, but nothing reminds you of the beauty of film quite like Unsane’s fugly shot-on-iPhone visuals.

Most Gratuitous Nude Scene Without Any Nudity of the Month
Bella and Edward going skinny dipping before finally consummating their marriage was barely necessary, but at least the whole series had basically been building to the point when they finally do it. Megan Fox going for a completely unmotivated nudey dip in Jennifer’s Body, on the other hand, was… well, gratuitous.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
For only the fifth time this year, the winner of this award is not my TV column. In fact, it’s the second most-viewed winner of this award in 2018 (behind Avengers: Infinity War’s huge tally back in April). That would be Netflix’s Indonesian actioner The Night Comes for Us.

Leaving aside new posts, my overall most-read post of the month by an absolute mile (much higher than any other post has ever managed in a single month, barring that time Cracked.com linked to me, which is mainly why I’m mentioning it) was last month’s TV review. Why? Well, it included my review of Bodyguard, which, following its phenomenal success in the UK, debuted on Netflix in the rest of the world last week. It previously won Most-Viewed New Post in September, but in October it received over six times as many hits!



My Rewatchathon continues apace…

#39 School of Rock (2003)
#40 Face/Off (1997)
#41 South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

Face/Off was one of the films I put into my 100 Favourites without rewatching, but if I had… well, I’m not saying I wouldn’t’ve included it, but I wouldn’t’ve given it 5 stars. It’s sort of terrible… but it goes about its business so outrageously and so ridiculously that it’s also sort of glorious. If it didn’t star Travolta and Cage or wasn’t directed by John Woo, I think it would’ve been a disaster; but they all carry out their roles with OTT abandon, and that’s actually what makes the ludicrous material work.

The South Park movie was going to become the latest in my ongoing series of “films I’ve owned forever on a DVD that I’ve never played, but were available on a streaming service in HD so I watched there instead”. Not that South Park’s self-consciously simplistic animation is crying out for the extra detail of 1080p, but a bit of crispness never hurt. But then it turned out it was only available to stream in SD anyway (goodness knows why — an HD version definitely exists because there’s a Blu-ray available in several territories), so I decided to pop in the DVD after all. But then I couldn’t find where my DVD copy was, so I elected to just watch the streaming version after all. What a story, eh? Look out for the movie adaptation, coming soon…

Oh, and the film was pretty good. It’s nearly 20 years old and has dated somewhat, but the vulgar irreverence has its charms.


A new Coen brothers movie! A new Orson Welles movie! Chris Pine’s penis! And that’s just on Netflix…