Film Review: Unsane (2018)

2018 in Cinema:

Unsane, 2018

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving


Unsane is an American psychological horror film uniquely shot entirely on an iPhone camera. The film centres around Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, Breathe), who accidentally, and unwittingly, checks herself in for a 24-hour stay in a psychiatric hospital. While there her anger at the situation causes her to act out and this enables the doctors to keep here there for a full week. It’s revealed she initially sought out a support group due to her being stalked for the previous two years and she’s alarmed to find her stalker working in the psychiatric ward.

Perhaps the most intriguing fact about this film is how it was filmed entirely on an iPhone, and, unfortunately, for me it didn’t work. The quality of the camera gives this film the visual impression of it being a low-budget film. But the worst part about the filming style is the amount of stationary camera shots, and I don’t know if that is due to the use of a phone or not, but nearly all the shots, especially when two or more characters are talking in a room, are filmed with a stationary camera. Switching from one non-moving sight of her talking to a non-moving sight of him replying and back and forth becomes really repetitive and really stale really quickly. It is an impressive feat, no doubt, filming an entire theatrically released film through a phone, and it will no doubt give budding students and filmmakers a renewed sense of belief that they can also make films this way, so in that way I love how it was filmed, but the overall final presentation to me was noticeably bad. Claire Foy, speaking to Digital Spy, said that the filming style ‘felt fresh, and unrehearsed, and full of life’, and I completely agree. From the moment we see Sawyer in her office the film looks unique; but to me that freshness and uniqueness ran dry not long into its relatively shot 98-minutes.

Another lacklustre thing about this film is the dialogue; so often it feels like characters are just talking for the sake of talking, not really giving anything away, and even when they are revealing important information (such as Sawyer explaining how she first encountered David Strine (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project), her stalker) it’s done so slowly with no urgency (in that instance Nate (Jay Pharoah) has to explain how his career plans were to become an astronaut but he wasn’t good at maths so he became a reporter instead, to which Sawyer explains how she wanted to become a nurse but didn’t have the desire to fully see it out). All this borderline-useless information allows the audience to switch off to what is important about it. Even a surprise cameo by Matt Damon (playing Detective Ferguson) is just him listing off safety measure after safety measure; now I agree it helped fully show the stress she’s gone through because of the stalker, but it still felt about eight safety measures too many.

It also felt like Unseen was trying to be too many things in one. On one part it is a psychological thriller about a woman trying to escape a serial stalker who ends up trapped with him, on another part it felt like an indictment of the way that psychiatric hospitals con money out of insurance companies and on another part it felt like a horror with a true horror villain (and I won’t spoil David’s journey by going into details). The early part sees her fighting against her entrapment inside the psychiatric hospital but half-way through she’s perfectly fine living there. Initially she fought and cried out against David issuing her with her tablets, but half-way through she’s fine taking the tablets with nothing more than a mean stare at David. Initially David is simply a stalker with an unhealthy obsession with Sawyer but by the end he’s changed direction and is extremely violent to anyone he likes. It felt like there were too many things going on at once throughout this film: from the sudden change of characters’ behaviours, to the cramming of so many things in the plot to the uniqueness of how it was filmed.

There are moments, though, where I was entertained by this film. Firstly, the plot (in its basic form, that is) is quite intriguing: a woman stalked for years accidentally ends up in a psychiatric hospital with her stalker, and I also loved the early mystery on whether or not she is crazy and whether or not he is her stalker. The first half does seem to give off the impression that everything is in her head (especially after her apparent breakdown on a date at the start), and the early silence from David hammers home that maybe he’s just an ordinary employee. It’s  a shame that it ended pretty swiftly and everything was revealed (especially after the insurance scam comes to light). I was enjoying the mystery about her mental state (the early part of the film shows her to be a liar, an angry employee and an emotionally damaged woman with regards to relationships) and was continuously awaiting a surprise but nothing came. And the acting throughout is pretty fine, especially from Foy. The whole team worked well, but Foy’s character work, especially in the first half, was really well told. She perfectly sold being accidentally there while leaving the possibility that maybe she’s supposed to be there.

Overall I wasn’t pleased with Unseen. I felt the first half was very satisfactory but overall it disappointed. It felt like all the rather interesting aspects it set up in the beginning were washed away in the end when it became more of a consequence-less horror than the psychological thriller it started as. And as for Soderbergh touting filming on a phone as the future: it isn’t. It’s interesting and will be a clever marketing tool used to promote this film, but that’s it. It became old, looked mediocre and served no clear purpose.


Plot: * *     Acting: * * *     Writing: * *     Presentation: *

Overall Rating: * *

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