‘Unsane’: pulp film shot with an iPhone
Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)
Rating: R for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references
Running time: 1:38
By Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer
Steven Soderbergh has shot his second post-hiatus film entirely on an iPhone.
“Unsane,” a pulpy psychological thriller, is an exercise in both genre and technology. It’s a B-movie iMovie. And it’s 98 minutes of proof that the laborious apparatus of filmmaking can be not only light on its feet, but fit snuggly inside your pocket.
Of course, not everyone has an “Unsane” on their smartphone. Some of us just have a couple cute kid pictures. But Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym “Peter Andrews,” is a restless, protean filmmaker prone to experimentation and live-wire immediacy in his movies. He likes to cut out the middle man, even if the middle man is a camera.
“Unsane” is also unusually timely. In the script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, Claire Foy, the breakout star of “The Crown,” plays a data analyst named Sawyer Valentini who has relocated from Boston to Pennsylvania to flee a stalker.
Foy plays Sawyer with deep inner trauma masked by tough, guarded exterior. When her married boss calls her into his office to, wink wink, suggest they travel together to a weekend conference, she immediately senses the danger and briskly returns to work. But when Sawyer attempts a one-night-stand with a Tinder date – she assures the guy the night will go “exactly like you want it to go,” so long as he never contacts her again – she violently withdraws from him at their first embrace and locks herself in the bathroom.
Seeking the advice of a therapist, she speaks to someone at an anonymous behavioral centered named Highland Creek. The meeting goes well, Sawyer thinks, but as she’s departing she’s asked to wait in the lobby. Later, a curt attendee comes to lead her down a drab, darkened hall, ushers her into a room, locks the door and asks Sawyer to empty her bag, hand over her phone and disrobe.
A growing sense of nightmare takes hold, as Sawyer eventually learns that her offhand acknowledgement of occasional suicidal thoughts has gotten her admitted for 24 hours, and that she’s unwittingly signed away her rights for that time. Her fury quickly leads to scrums that extend her stay and increase her dosages, dispensed in little paper cups. Her mother (Amy Irving) can do little to free her.
Sawyer believes her stalker (Joshua Leonard) has infiltrated the hospital and is working there as an orderly. Is this a delusion? Or is this another case of a woman’s accusations against a sexual harasser being ignored and explained away?
“Unsane” keeps those seesawing possibilities alive for a good while, but eventually settles definitively – disappointingly, because it saps the mystery – on one side. While Soderbergh made the film before the Harvey Weinstein accusations unspooled, “Unsane” captures much of the pain, confusion and self-doubt that can follow sexual abuse.