Unsane (2018)

Review #1,562

Director:  Steven Soderbergh
Cast:  Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah
Plot:  A young woman is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear - but is it real or a product of her delusion?

Genre:  Mystery / Thriller
Awards:  Premiered at Berlin
Runtime:  98 mins
Rating:  NC16 (passed clean) for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references
Singapore Distributor:  20th Century Fox

“I'm not crazy!”

Claire Foy, the star of the TV series “The Crown” as Queen Elizabeth II, plays against type in this new psycho-thriller by Steven Soderbergh.  It is a role that will surely garner attention as she transforms herself into a psychologically-distressed woman with a rough edge and foul mouth.  Her name is Sawyer Valentini, an office worker, whose worst fears come alive when she becomes involuntarily committed to a mental institution.  

Haunted by a stalker for two years, she discovers that the same guy now works in that mental institution where she is kept against her will.  Whether that is true or not is part of how the plotting develops, but truth be told, Unsane is not as concerned about the art of storytelling than it is about experimentation and technique.  

For a little more than 90 minutes, Soderbergh trains his sharp camera eye (via his cinematographer alias Peter Andrews) on Sawyer, detailing her every move and expression, such that any moment of exasperation or violent action is captured with chilling immediacy.  This is, of course, the result of the film being shot on an iPhone.  And it is amazing what it can do—the shots feel constricted while the colours look artificially dreary, inducing a sense of discomfort and paranoia in a largely clinical setting that treats patients like inmates.  

The film’s aspect ratio is an unusual 1.56:1, in between the classic 1.33:1 and the wider 1.85:1, its unfamiliarity certainly adding a touch of uneasiness in the viewer’s confrontation with the image.  I use the word ‘confrontation’ because Soderbergh has intentionally made a film that is—visually as well as narratively—gritty and harsh, such that it is difficult to watch it for the sake of enjoyment.  One must attempt to deliberately if impossibly accept and repel the image at the same time in order to acquaint with Soderbergh’s sleigh-of-hand.  

The result is a half-decent work that may alienate mainstream audiences who could find the film amateurish, but fans of the director might lap up another so-called smaller, experimental work by the ever-versatile American filmmaker.  Its homage to ‘90s style television shows on crime and mystery is also evident, not least from its pulpy underpinnings and use of music (light drum beats with strong piano chords).  

I would say Unsane tries to channel a bit of Soderbergh’s early underrated work, The Underneath (1995), in the toying of paranoia through visual ways, as well as thematic concerns addressed in the Rooney Mara vehicle, Side Effects (2013).  Funny enough, Foy has been tapped to play Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a role that Mara nailed to perfection in Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).  Consider Unsane as the dress rehearsal for Foy to venture into even darker territory.  

Verdict:  Soderbergh's half-decent iPhone-shot '90s style psycho-thriller induces paranoia and discomfort through its constricted visual style, and backed by a terrific performance by Claire Foy.




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