Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Throughout his entire career, director Steven Soderbergh has bounced back and forth between popular entertainment and experimental films. For every Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, he directed a Full Frontal, Bubble, and The Girlfriend Experience. After taking a brief hiatus from films to work in television, he returned to the big screen with last year’s Logan Lucky, a film that was intended as popular entertainment even if the box office receipts didn’t exactly back that up. This year’s follow-up is an experimental thriller called Unsane, which Soderbergh shot entirely with an iPhone camera. The result is a movie with an unnerving visual style that works well for its subject matter.
Unsane stars Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini, a young woman who recently moved to Pennsylvania from Boston to escape a stalker. Her ability to adjust to her new surroundings is hampered by the fact that she sees her stalker everywhere: at the office, in the streets, and even in the faces of potential new lovers.
After searching for support groups online, she visits a local medical clinic where she has a one-on-one with a therapist, after which she is asked to fill out some “routine” paperwork. Signing the paperwork without reading it in detail, Sawyer is soon shocked to learn that she has “voluntarily” committed herself to the facility and is now being held against her will. To make matters worse, it turns out that one of the facility’s orderlies is the stalker she thought she escaped when she left Boston. But is he really there or is this just part of her delusion?
Despite the fact that the first act of the film sets up the question of whether what she is seeing is real or not as being the main focus of the film and the film’s entire marketing campaign was based on that, the question is answered rather quickly. Although I am sure there will still be arguments made that everything we see in the film might not have been real—unreliable narrator and all that—to me, it felt like the question was answered pretty definitely about halfway through. That is not to say that the second half of the film falters; as a matter of fact, the film really ramps up the tension in its final act. It is only that the film has become more of a straight-forward thriller and less of a psychological thriller.
Much of the film’s tension comes from its unique visual style. Unsane looks like how I might imagine Stanley Kubrick would have shot a movie on an iPhone—although I somehow doubt that he ever would have. Extreme low-angle shots and floating tracking shots through the hallways of the hotel are very reminiscent of The Shining. Being shot on an iPhone also adds the interesting dimension of making this feel like it could have been shot by one of the other patients in the hospital, adding to the claustrophobic aspect of the film. And the close-ups of Sawyer put us right in her face as she becomes more and more stressed by her predicament. We as an audience are so close to her panicked face that we cannot help but become panicked ourselves.
Putting us right in Sawyer’s face helps us to identify with her and want to root for her even though the film doesn’t set her character up as the nicest person. When we first meet her, she is demeaning one of her customers over the phone and then she seems somewhat distant as she talks to her Mom on the phone while picking at a salad with her fingers. And when she gets to the hospital, she is quick to resort to violence. The film doesn’t even explain her situation to us up front. If I hadn’t seen the trailer or read a description of the film going in, I would have had little to no idea that she had fled home to escape a stalker until about thirty minutes into the film. The movie does finally flashback to give us some perspective with a little help from one of Soderbergh’s most popular collaborators.
Claire Foy is a solid lead for Soderbergh’s experiment. She walks the fine line between paranoid, overwhelmed, and plain scared before showing off a darker side later in the film. It’s a performance that bodes well for her taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Joshua Leonard is also very good as her creepy stalker, despite a few moments that go a little too over-the-top, generating chuckles from the audience. And Jay Pharoah plays an interesting character in fellow patient Nate, a man who may know details about a corrupt plot within the hospital or may just be paranoid.
Unsane is not a perfect thriller, but it does pack plenty of thrills while pulling off a few surprises. As his experimental films go, this is one of Soderbergh’s better ones. And being in a genre that lends itself well as entertainment, it may be the one that comes closest to bonding the experimental with the popular.
Unsane is now playing at the AMC Kent Station 14, the AMC Southcenter 16, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s The Landing 14.