UNSANE

Over the last century, the basics of filmmaking have remained rather unchanged. You need a camera, some actors to be in front of it, some lights to light your actors, crew members to assist in various ways, and so on and so forth. While the basics are the same, the technology and the way we use it is constantly changing. A modern digital camera has a lens and aperture just like an old film camera does, but it also offers a dynamic range of options that a film camera doesn’t. As the technology evolves, there are always filmmakers out there eager to experiment with a new way of filmmaking. Experiments aren’t always known for their success, though. 

In Unsane, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), is trying to live a normal life as a business woman after moving away from her abusive stalker David (Joshua Leonard). Still suffering from PTSD due to her experience, she meets with a therapist, who suggests that they should have further sessions. After Sawyer carelessly fills out some paperwork, she finds out she voluntarily committed herself to be in a mental institution for a week. Knowing she’s not crazy, Sawyer tries her best to convince the hospital staff and police to let her go. They force to her to stay and to make matters worse, David is working as a nurse in the hospital! Or is he just a psychological delusion of Sawyer’s? Who knows? The only thing we do know is that Sawyer has no escape. 

The big selling point for Unsane is the fact that director Steven Soderbergh shot the film entirely on an iPhone 7. This isn’t the first film to do that (Sean Baker’s Tangerine was shot on iPhone 5’s), but according to Soderbergh, this is the future of filmmaking. Well, I certainly hope not, because the future of filmmaking is looking mighty ugly. While I admire a filmmaker trying to shake up the industry and evolve how films are being made, those experiments don’t always prove to be successful. It’s evident that this film was shot on a cell phone from the opening shot. The image is often incredibly flat, ranging from horribly overexposed in bright scenes, and filled with noise during the dark ones. The images are competently blocked and framed well, for the most part, although some shots seemed to be a bit too high, leaving a lot of awkward headspace (and overexposed light sources). This way of filming resulted in a smaller aspect ratio of 1.56 : 1, which does a great job at enhancing the claustrophobia and isolation Sawyer is feeling. Overall, though, the presentation was immensely distracting throughout, often taking me out of the film. 

Even though the cinematography was constantly taking me out of the film, it was the fantastic performances and engrossing narrative that kept drawing me back in. Sometimes I was so invested that I forgot about the ugly aesthetic altogether. I love stories about people who are forced to come to terms with their own sanity, making you wonder how crazy they might be. It takes a great actor to really sell that uncertainty, and Claire Foy is more than capable for the job. She can’t do a convincing American accent, but she can definitely play a woman on the brink of losing her mind. Whether she’s crying in bed, screaming at orderlies, or trying to work her way through the politics of a mental institution, I was with her the entire way and wasn’t just rooting for her to escape, but also for her to get over her past trauma. Juno Temple, Jay Pharoah, and Joshua Leonard are also great, especially Temple, playing a psychotic and abusive mental patient. 

It was these characters and the great performance that really elevated the film, because what we’re really dealing with her is a very well-crafted B-movie. As the plot moves along and new things are revealed, it gets progressively sillier and outlandish, all the way down to the bloody climax. When you really think about how all the moving pieces come together in the end, it ends up being quite illogical. I guess it’s a good thing that I don’t have a problem with suspending my disbelief. Part of the fun that comes with watching most movies is experiencing something that you wouldn’t in real life. Being held in a mental hospital against your will is a terrifying concept, especially when you combine it with being stuck with your stalker, while wondering if he’s even actually there or not. The story elements were explored in many different ways, which makes some of them feel underdeveloped. It never lost sight of the character and her journey, though. No matter how ridiculous it got, I was always feeling uncomfortable, which is exactly was Soderbergh was going for. 

Unsane is very cheesy and sometimes feels like a Lifetime movie, but it ends up being cheese that tastes quite good. While the decision to shoot the entire film on a cell phone was an ambitious one, it often looked ugly and in need of an actual movie camera. The presentation was off putting and distracting, but everything else from the performances, to the writing, and to the directing were all good enough to keep my interested. Let’s just hope this new way of shooting films isn’t truly “the future”. If so, then the future looks horribly overexposed and flat. Keep up the experimenting, though. We wouldn’t have some of the great films we have today without some risk taking. 

7/10

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