Steven Soderbergh came out of retirement (surprise!) with this low key psychological horror, shot entirely on iPhone over ten days. For the practically non-existent budget of $1.5M it’s an impressive reminder of what you can do with a decent script and central character who can hold the screen (everyone’s favourite Queen, Claire Foy). But not only is the iPhone an effective low budget tool, but through it’s distorted, bleached out view it adds to the overall sense of dislocation & voyeurism.
Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, and in the opening scenes we see her fending off advances from her creepy boss, disconnected from work colleagues and having a panic attack when a date tries to touch her. All is obviously not well with her despite what she tells her mother on the phone, and we discover she is fleeing a stalker. She sees a counsellor and is tricked into committing herself to an institution. This lands her in familiar catch 22 territory – a sane person would fight in an insane asylum thus making them appear insane. Her resistance sees her committed for a week, and the the rather banal conspiracy is revealed by fellow inmate Nate. It’s an insurance scam – they commit you for as long as the insurance will pay out and they can meet their quotas. There are echoes of the 13th, in the inherent corruptibility of a profit making public service system.
But then Sawyer sees her stalker, working as one of the staff. We’re left to determine if this is real or not. This shifts the movie into horror – being trapped in a helpless situation with your tormentor on the side of the powerful. Ultimately it doesn’t render enough of the claustrophobia or doubt about her sanity and so plays out fairly straight in the end.
Unsane can be interpreted as a comment on the complicity of society in male stalking. But, like Tangerine, it is perhaps more an experiment in using new tech. It may be the new hipster thing, like recording for vinyl, but in the constraints it offers, it also forces film-makers to revert back to a pre-CGI phase, and concentrate on core elements. While Unsane is admirable in this respect, I didn’t get the impression that Soderbergh likes or watches horror enough – it felt like he shied away from it, like someone who takes a TV camping.