Thankfully, Steven Soderbergh’s retirement was short-lived. Last year he returned to feature films with the delightful hillbilly heist flick Logan Lucky. Now the acclaimed director returns with the genre thriller Unsane, which is probably getting the most attention because Soderbergh shot the film entirely on an iPhone. What could easily be written off as a simple gimmick is so much more, as Soderbergh uses Unsane as a means to take a genre twist on the warped healthcare industry in America while crafting a solid, unsettling thriller that also tackles long-standing trauma and how we as a society rarely listen to victims.
Sawyer (Claire Foy) is young professional working in a bank. She’s been dealing with the trauma of a stalker that has left a lingering effect on her psyche, unsure if the next bearded man she encounters is her stalker. Sawyer seeks counseling for her lingering problems at Highland Creek, a local hospital. She signs some forms after chatting with her therapist, only to find herself trapped within the hospital. Sawyer has been declared a danger to herself and others by this new therapist and thus must be institutionalized for a 48 hour period. Horrified at the prospect of a forced stay in a psychiatric institution, Sawyer lashes out violently which only means that her stay will be extended to a week. Things get even worse for Sawyer when she becomes convinced that one of the male nurses in the hospital (Joshua Leonard) is the stalker that had terrorized her in the past.
There’s a sense of “Is she or isn’t she?” as to the topic of Sawyer’s sanity. Her interactions with fellow patients vary wildly, with a kindly and understanding one (Jay Pharoah) and a violent and unstable one (Juno Temple). Soderbergh’s use of the iPhone my not be the most aesthetically pleasing cinematic device, but the digitized images from an imperfect piece of technology adds to the sense of unease that permeates throughout Unsane. Using an iPhone, Soderbergh starts out shooting the film with very few camera movements, rarely showing the limitations of the device when in motion. As the story escalates, Soderbergh abandons the static camera and yet retains a judicious sense of the limitations, though the imperfections of the technology amplify the overwhelming uncertainty. While Unsane’s iPhone photography may come across as a gimmick, it often works in sync with the unsettling aspects of the storyline.
Once Unsane begins to ramp up its action with a series of reveals that are most obviously spoilers, Foy asserts herself as a commanding leading lady in a way that those who weren’t fans of The Crown have yet to see. One aspect that is not a spoiler is the idea that Highland Creek exploits the cries for help of their patients to institutionalize them and bleed their insurance carrier dry. It’s an interesting genre twist on the broken aspects of our health care system, one that Soderbergh has explored in recent films like Contagion and Side Effects. The screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer cuts right into the heart of how patients and victims of abuse, mainly women, are rarely listened to by authorities. Those suffering with mental illness or have been traumatized by abuse are told to take their pills and tough it out, which in this particular case isn’t much of a solution and Soderbergh uses it as an effective horror device.
Unsane may be a minor work by Soderbergh, it’s still a fun piece of genre fare with a bit more on its mind than central question of its main character’s sanity. The film definitely veers into some violent trashy territory that some may find objectionable, but I was rapt by this unsettling psychological thriller that sees Soderbergh utilizing new technology to make daring genre films on the cheap. I may not love the aesthetic from the iPhone-shot cinematography, but I’d happily take this over a self-imposed retirement any day.
While shot on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is much more than a gimmick film with a strong lead performance by Claire Foy and themes examining trauma and the American healthcare system wrapped into a genre thriller.