'Unsane' film review: Soderbergh's experimental shot-on-an-iPhone psycho horror
In short: Stalking victim Sawyer (Claire Foy, "The Crown") unwittingly commits herself into a mental health institution. Although she maintains that she isn't mentally ill, Sawyer begins to question her own eroding sanity when she starts to see her stalker everywhere. Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Amy Irving and Joshua Leonard also star.
The strength of "Unsane" is not quite knowing whether Sawyer's paranoia is real or if she is indeed mentally ill. Great pains are made to clearly establish that Sawyer is seriously emotionally, if not psychologically, rattled. Sawyer is haunted by memories of a stalker, a trauma that still disturbs her even after starting a new life in a new city. The first act introduces a character who lives with a legitimate, deeply-ingrained fear -- but even Sawyer admits she is prone to imagining horrors that are not real. This uncertainty keeps the audience off balance, and unsure whether to trust the protagonist. Soderbergh's horror rides Sawyer's descent toward madness as her situation increasingly worsens and she questions her sanity.
Unfortunately, the screenplay undermines this momentum on two different fronts. First and most frustratingly, "Unsane" reveals its mystery prematurely - as in about halfway into the run time. This early reveal completely unwinds all the previous tension. The film's compelling uncertainty is legitimately its strength. Once that uncertainty is defused, all that's left is a mediocre thriller and some bad dialogue. Basically every character except Sawyer pukes out terrible dialogue - some of which is unintentionally laughable.
The fact Soderbergh shot the entire film on an iPhone 7 Plus must be addressed - because it works ... and it doesn't. Most of the film's shots are tight close ups of the characters, which creates a claustrophobic and frenetic aesthetic. Everything about the film's cinematography feel off, yet eerily intimate. This unconventional stylistic choice injects an unsettling kinetic energy that accentuates Sawyer's downward spiral.
That said, the iPhone 7 obviously lacks the video fidelity of conventional movie cameras. Images directly in the foreground look pretty good - but pretty much everything else is grainy, a weakness all the more noticeable on the big screen. The choice of camera simultaneously is immersive for Sawyer's disintegrating perspective as it is distracting because smartphones are not yet up to the task of cinematic filmmaking.
Foy admirably pulls off a desperate victim on-the-edge who may or may not be imagining everything - while the rest of the cast is generally wasted on some thin or broad characters. The very premise - that of a person who voluntarily commits herself and is then held against her will - strains credibility. The backstory of several supporting characters borders on ludicrous because the writers resorted to some absurd plot devices to fill in some narrative holes in misguided efforts to increase dramatic tension.
To its credit, the script succeeds in pressing how a woman's life can be utterly upended by a stalker's invasive and unwanted advances. While stalkers in film are nothing new, "Unsane" makes a strong statement on the fundamentally life-changing ways a stalking victim redefines their life and their ever weary perspective of people. In contrast, the film's heavy-handed commentary on the mental health institution is less effective.
Final verdict: A compelling first half sadly devolves into a tedious second half. The crux of the film works because the audience doesn't know if Sawyer is insane or not - but the film reveals that answer too early, effectively kneecapping the second half.
"Unsane" opens in theaters nationwide March 23. This horror-thriller has a running time of 97 minutes and is rated R for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references.