March 25, 2018 Unsane (Movie Review)
It is probably not a stretch to say the majority of internet readers visit news publications, among other websites, mostly on their smartphones. The technology is ubiquitous. It is almost a cliché to bring attention to it anymore. Enter social media. Every time a user posts or “likes” this or that, they create not just a digital trail for themselves, but a digital mask. It is not just an addiction, but a way of life. The user is creating a version of him or herself for the world to see.
This is the climate wherein unfolds Unsane, in theaters everywhere as of Friday, March 23, 2018 via Fingerprint Releasing & Bleecker Street. Director/Cinematographer (as Peter Andrews) Steven Soderbergh (Traffic 2000, Logan Lucky 2017) has created a frightening story for the iPhone generation and the people who remember the days before it.
It is appropriate, then, that Soderbergh used only iPhones to film Unsane. This is the story of Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy: The Crown series, Breathe 2017). Sawyer, now living in Pennsylvania after moving from Boston to avoid a stalker (Joshua Leonard: The Blair Witch Project 1999, The Town that Dreaded Sundown 2014), finds herself involuntarily committed. There among the institution’s staff she finds that very stalker, David Strine. Is this real? Or is she imagining this, still in the thrall of that trauma?
At 98 minutes, this is a very lean story. Soderbergh teases out this question of what is real for Claire deliberately but quickly, and it works to great effect. The tension builds constantly. Sawyer, lost down a hole of bureaucracy and minutiae, struggles to contain her frustration and exasperation at her situation.
Soderbergh’s choice to use iPhones may at first seem gimmicky or too budget-conscious. There is something involving about this, though. As society grows further reliant on this technology, the accompanying visual understanding of our surroundings (by way of smartphones) only becomes more normalized and ingrained. Take another look at all those selfies and Instagram posts.
This is a story that questions not just the masks we wear when in public. It also wonders about the conditions that encourage their passive development. After all, who willingly posts negative material on social media? Online personas are created subconsciously through engaging with a machine both literal and metaphorical.
Josh Leonard’s character of David Strine is like the dark culmination of social media and reality television. While Unsane has nothing to do with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, it is the self-awareness this film has of his casting that is key. Even if he is not the same character, Leonard is still one of the faces of the first and most successful attempts to blur the lines between “documented” reality and fantasy on film. His Strine “loves” who he thinks Sawyer is, not who she actually is.
Then there is Claire Foy who gives a great performance as a woman not just confused by what is real here, but by having to constantly reiterate that she is not crazy. Sawyer Valentini is not even that sympathetic. She clearly uses for her own purposes the most stand-up guy in the institution, Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah: Saturday Night Live series, Ride Along 2014), an addict sucked into the exploitive machinery of the institution. Soderbergh makes the hospital’s profit motive a point of emphasis.
This makes Sawyer more real. She is not an idealized character, such as the one living in David Strine’s head. The film effectively shows just how much this can traumatize a person. The internet is loaded with stories about entitled man-boys with all the “answers” thinking they can just will women into dating. Sawyer is at once trapped by the cynical, money-making scheme of the hospital and the obsessive eyes of this man-boy culture.
It is unfortunate, then, that Unsane becomes more like a “movie” in the third act and lets down to an extent. It does not take away the power that film has. The awkward-at-times iPhone cinematography may challenge some viewers to suspend their disbelief, but it feels almost like that’s the point. All in all, this does not feel like a film that is only supposed to exist as a movie.
Overall, Unsane is a taut, pressure-cooker of a Psychological Thriller. It is packed with great performances. It is a simple, yet terrifying story. Though it becomes a little too genre-like in the third act, the film will still keep fans on edge all the way throughout. For that, CrypticRock gives Unsane 3.5 out of 5 stars.