Unsane, directed by Steven Soderbergh, will unnerve you; it will have you questioning everything, and it will keep you on edge; toying with your assumptions and your comfort levels. It’s in director, Steven Soderbergh’s decision on how to shoot this film, that Unsane becomes a film that from its very first scene has you feeling off-balance. It looks different; it feels different and you’re in a situation that feels… uncomfortable. This film immediately pulled me in with all of these elements and much more. I’m eager to talk about them; particularly Soderbergh’s interesting decision on how to shoot the film and if it works. So, let’s get to it.
We follow, Sawyer Valentini – played by Claire Foy – who seeks help after her stalker reappears, despite having moved hundreds of miles away to a new city. However, after being involuntarily committed into a mental institution, her situation becomes worse. Trapped and with seemingly no hope of help, she (and we) will begin to question if she is as sane as she thinks she is.
I never fully settled when watching Unsane. There was much that unnerved me and had me feeling on edge when watching it – and I do mean that as a positive. The thing that initiated these feelings first, where in how the film was shot. You’re probably aware of this information by now, but for those that aren’t: Director, Steven Soderbergh shot the entirety of this film on a handful of Iphone 7’s and a selection of detachable lenses (now, this isn’t a new idea; director Sean Baker shot his entire film, Tangerine, on an Iphone 5S). What it did was give the film a very different visual feel. The depth of field at first felt unnatural – I’m used to watching a film on the big screen shot on high-end digital cameras (and film, if we’re lucky). So to be watching a film shot on a phone that is usually used for capturing pictures and videos that will end up on snapchat or Instagram is certainly a bold choice by Soderbergh.
But it absolutely worked in my opinion. We consume the lives of our friends, favourite celebrities and even strangers through the lens of their phones. So to then take that everyday activity and shoot a film on it, created an odd disconnect for me that I then quickly realised was a smart way to heighten the visceral effect of the narrative. At first, it’s like we – along with Sawyer’s stalker – are watching her. The shots are from bushes or behind a wall; like we’re seeing the POV (point of view) of her stalker. It immediately set the tone for the type of experience to expect. A tone that was sinister and uncomfortable.
This is then furthered when Sawyer’s story isn’t filmed in a manner that is POV but still feels uncomfortable. The claustrophobic framing that puts us right there with her, or the wide shots that seem to have her disappearing into the frame. There are choices from a cinematography standpoint that really intensify the effect of the film. Being so close makes for a much more involving experience. Almost like we are trapped along with Sawyer in her nightmarish situation. As she begins to spiral out of control, so does the camera, and we are pulled along with her into the madness. I can’t stress how effective it is. The only issue I found with how the film was shot was that the audio sometimes sounded a little blown-out. I’m not sure what specifically caused this issue, but it was one I did notice more than once and was unpleasant upon the ears for sure.
But it’s not just in the choice of camera that plays a part in visually unnerving you. The lighting and colour palette, and the set design, all played a huge part as well. Muddy yellows or sinister blues create scenes that have a repellent feel to them. Sawyer’s surroundings are already unpleasant, and the lighting intensifies that. Particularly when Sawyer’s main antagonist his hidden in shadows; making his intentions unclear; his emotional state unknown. And then when you place all those factors into locations that feel unsafe and remind you why hospitals are so unpleasant to be in – with the blank, sanitised colour palettes. What you have is a film – that on top of the already disturbing situation – isn’t ever allowing you to forget where you are and how distressing it all is.
And speaking of a disturbing situation, Unsane pulls you into a story with a character who was surprisingly unconventional in her presentation. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) was, much to my surprise, not a very likeable protagonist in the beginning. She’s brash and short tempered with people. She thinks herself better than those around her and often thinks she is the person who knows more than the others around her. It was an interesting choice for sure; to have your main character be someone who is difficult to like – interestingly though, I personally still found myself rooting for Sawyer and caring about what the outcome of the character would be. But most importantly, what it did was feed into the questions that inevitably came up about the character’s mental state and well-being. Was she okay? Was everything she thought to be true, actually in her head? Did she need to be in this psychiatric hospital? These questions and more kept traveling around my head.
The faultless performance by Claire Foy juggles all of the states of Sawyer’s mind. It is a very harrowing journey that the character goes through and her emotional and mental state is all over the place. Claire Foy never misses a beat in going all the way down into the dark recesses of the character’s mind. It’s a performance that controls and guides the film. Every scene involves her in some way and she always gave her all. There was a particular scene that stood out to me, that took place in a padded room, in which I was in awe of the talent on show and also the intensity of the moment. Claire Foy commands the scene and showed to me she’s an actress who I need to keep firmly on my radar going forth. I’ve not had the chance to experience a lot of Claire Foy’s work, but after seeing her in this film, I plan to rectify that. It is such an outstanding lead performance from her!
The character of Sawyer is wrapped up in questions and the film around her is further wrapped up in them. You don’t know who to trust; who might be lying, who might be deceiving Sawyer, or the audience. It kept me at all times engaged. I wanted to learn the answers to the questions I had. I wanted to know if I had placed my trust in the right people. Was Sawyer unstable? Was it all in her head. Was her stalker, David Strine – played by Joshua Leonard – real? So many questions – so many avenues for the film to take us down and explore. It never allows you to lose focus on the film and you’ll never find yourself wanting to.
The experience was so intense, that Unsane elicited the types of reactions from the audience around me, that I love to be part of. Winces of discomfort, jumping out of their seats, and even a few screams of terror. Unsane pulls you in so deep and has you completely entranced by its story, that when it surprises you, it garners a significant reaction.
I love when a film is able to achieve that. I love being there in the cinema; experiencing a great film and having it cause an uncontrollable physical or auditory response. It reminds me of how effective film can be, and how gratifying it can be to experience it with a crowd as engaged as you are. And then to hear the enthusiastic chats between people once it’s finished, where they gush about the film or dissect the many excellent elements of it. It’s what’s so great about watching a film as good as Unsane. The credits roll, and you feel you can properly breathe for the first time in 98-minutes, and that feeling washes over you of relief and total satisfaction. In your head you know you’ve watched something memorable.
Unsane very much achieved all that. I never lost engagement with this film. I was gripped by what was happening and what was around the next crazy corner. Director, Steven Soderbergh is an interesting one. Not all his films are hits and he often declares he’s retiring from making films, only to release one a year later. But when he commits to a film and delivers something outstanding; it is always something to remember, share, and talk about.
I absolutely recommend, Unsane. Prepare to be pulled into a film that will unsettle you, intrigue you and have you gripping the seat. Ignore all the big silly films that are currently out in the cinema and please go see a film with some thought and care put into it.
I’d love to know what you thought of Unsane and my review of it, so please leave any opinions or feedback you may have in the comments section down below. If you liked what you read here, may I ask that you follow both this blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings – for all the updates and new reviews. There’s nothing left to say other than thank you. Thank you for dedicating some of your time towards reading my review. I hope you liked it enough to return.