To set a film at a psychiatric ward is every screenwriter’s dream, it allows for much deception to come from anything being shown on screen; can the audience trust their narrator and what they’re seeing? It’s also a setting that allows us to look into the more hidden aspects of our human psyche and nature. But whatever the reasoning for the setting, a great deal of calculation must go in order to pull off such a film.
Unsane is Steven Sodebergh’s second film after coming out of his short-lived retirement; it follows Sawyer (Claire Foy trying her best at an American accent) a victim of stalking who still supposedly sees her stalker (Joshua Leonard) everywhere. After going to a therapy session she unwittingly admits herself into a psych ward. Sawyer attempts to make the staff see that she’s not actually crazy, but the more she tries, the crazier she seems. Added to that Sawyer seems to see her stalker as part of the staff. Is there some giant conspiracy, or is Sawyer actually crazy?
The plot is actually much more intriguing on paper that how it’s executed. The overall feeling throughout much of the film is that this is still a working script. By the end of the film you don’t know what it was trying to comment on; was it the state of mental institutions in the US, Big Pharma, stalking in the age of social media, or all of these at the same time? A film can comment on multiple points, but Unsane touches on these subjects in such a superficial way that you never get any analysis or questioning urges. The plot bounces around, clearly lost, up until the last act of the film when Unsuanefinally turns into gripping thriller.
A big aspect of this film that makes it stand out from the rest is that it was filmed entirely on an iPhone. This is certainly not a first, we’ve seen Sean Baker film his breakthrough film Tangerine entirely on an Apple device. In Unsane this technique disorients at first, so that you miss much of the beginning of the film by noting the distracting fish-eye lens, but after a while you start to appreciate it as it adds a certain proximity to the story and its characters.
In the end Unsane proves to be an unstable film (pun intended) with a muddled script that doesn’t pay off until the final scenes; coming from such a talented director as Soderbergh, you could only have hoped for so much more.