Review – Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone horror ‘Unsane’ is a brilliantly paranoid nightmare

Poster for 2018 horror movie Unsane

Genre: Horror
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 23rd March 2018
Runtime: 98 minutes
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Juno Temple, Jay Pharaoh, Amy Irving
Synopsis: Years after being a victim of stalking, a woman unwittingly commits herself to a mental institution and begins to believe that her stalker has somehow got a job at the hospital.

 

 

The red carpet was rolled out with excitement when Steven Soderbergh came out of retirement last year for Southern fried crime caper Logan Lucky. He’s now back again with something entirely different – a claustrophobic horror movie shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. As a stylistic exercise, Unsane is thrilling and unique, with the clear flourishes of a director relishing the chance to experiment. However, a slightly muddled script does threaten to sink the entire vessel.

Soderbergh revels in his aesthetic here. Shooting on an iPhone allows for a slightly more square aspect ratio – somewhere between Academy and widescreen – that amplifies the sense of claustrophobia throughout. The use of low angles and harsh lighting, as well as the slightly diminished camera quality, creates this strange sense that something is off and out of the ordinary, which only serves to make the audience even more uneasy and tense than they already are thanks to the gradually turning screws of the horror plot.

That plot focuses on Sawyer (Claire Foy), who has constantly moved across the country and changed her contact information in order to distance herself from a stalker (Joshua Leonard) that she met through her old job. In need of counselling, she visits a hospital and signs some routine papers. Unfortunately for her, those papers lead to her being permanently committed to a psychiatric ward, where she butts heads with fellow patient Violet (Juno Temple) while forming a friendship with drug addict Nate (Jay Pharoah).

There are a number of central mysteries at play in Unsane, but most of them feel like side elements, whether it’s some sly commentary about the American health insurance industry or the very question of why it is that Sawyer is being held within the institution for so long. The script, from Just My Luck (yes, the one with McFly) screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, has a habit of wrapping up its loose ends rather too early in the movie, leaving the third act to devolve into impressively crunchy violence and shocking brutality, as opposed to narrative resolutions.

Fortunately, it’s Soderbergh who is at the helm of it all. The unique visual style afforded by the iPhone allows for some inventive staging and interesting shots. One explosion of violence, in particular, is framed beautifully as a sudden, sharp shock that leaves a real punch behind. Unsane is also helped by strong performances from both Foy and Leonard, with the latter channelling every entitled manchild in a way that’s almost too real in a world in which The Red Pill exists as an online community. Foy, a long way from the gowns and plummy accents of The Crown, is committed and believable as a woman at the end of her tether.

For all of its storytelling flaws, Unsane is an effective horror-thriller that does a tremendous job of building its tension at a measured pace, aided by an unusual and evocative score from Thomas Newman. At just over 90 minutes in length, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and is enjoyable even as it comes entirely off the rails in the third act. It’s not Soderbergh at his absolute best but, as a cinematic experiment, it’s one that works better than it has any right to.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Steven Soderbergh is well and truly back, it seems, and he’s pushing the boundaries of cinema with Unsane. Like the drama Tangerine, it’s a movie shot on smartphones and that proves to be a crucial part of its aesthetic. Strong performances from Claire Foy and Joshua Leonard keep the character side of things moving, but it’s Soderbergh who’s the crucial cog in this machine, even as a slightly ropey script threatens to ruin the entire experiment.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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