Steven Soderbergh utilises a 1.56:1 aspect ratio and films entirely on an iPhone to deliver this intense psychological thriller that will make you feel like you can’t escape from your chair until it is over. Unsane follows Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) who is involuntarily committed to a mental institution where she is confronted by one of her greatest fears, but is this fear real or is she well beyond delusional? The story takes the form of an “Is she crazy? Is she not?” sort of film where the question is teased at and designed to drive you insane over the course of the movie. And Soderbergh who acts as director, cinematographer, and editor (the latter two under pseudonyms) manages to create a chilling atmosphere that is constantly unsettling and hostile within the claustrophobic environment it is set. The use of the iPhone as a filming tool is limiting but it also opens a tonne of avenues for some creative cinematography and Soderbergh makes full use of this. It’s captivating to the last and a thrilling unpredictable ride.
The film is led by Claire Foy who puts in a phenomenal performance as Sawyer and really convincingly puts on display the total unravelling of this character during her time in the institution. The question of is she really insane or not isn’t clear at any point and that thanks in part to the writing but also the layers of her performance which can be perceived in either way. She has quite a few memorable standout scenes, especially one somewhat lengthy scene which occurs late in the film where she is bewitching in how well she delivers her dialogue. Jay Pharoah plays Nate, one of the inmates at the institution and where he is great as the character and I feel he does a good job at bringing out his personality… that personality however doesn’t mesh well with the tone the film is establishing. His character is very supportive and sympathetic of Sawyer which is a good element but the comedic undertones Pharoah evokes in the role are odd in the grand scheme of what is going on. Joshua Leonard plays George Shaw, a nurse at the institution and the catalyst for her warranted or unwarranted fear and he is absolutely stellar in the role. I had never heard of Leonard prior to this film but my eyes will be open for his name from now on. There is also an A-list celebrity cameo in the film I won’t spoil as it’s a nice surprise.
As the story progresses and gradually unravels it sends you on a spiralling ride that will have you questioning and second-guessing yourself as you try to piece together who is telling the truth. From Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, the writers who bought you the classic Jackie Chan‘s The Spy Next Door (2010), comes a carefully paced and very unpredictable story that had me hooked from the beginning right to the final frame. The first half of the film is a calculated buildup and gradual descent into madness with a deeply unsettling atmosphere and then the last 30 minutes of the movie is absolutely harrowing. There are a couple of short scenes here and there in the first half that don’t quite fit as well and momentarily impacts the buildup. But the last portion of this movie is so tight and so intense it’s like 30 minutes of an entirely unbroken thrill ride that I absolutely loved. The cinematography at the hands of Soderbergh is such a delight here as it brings so much to building this claustrophobic tone. The film is composed almost entirely of fixed shots at unconventional and confronting angles and it all adds to the creepy atmosphere. The unique aspect ratio enhances the tightness of the enclosed spaces you spend the majority of time in wonderfully.
This is a psychological thriller that is intense from beginning to end but is not without some minor issues here and there. Some scenes in the first half are a bit of a break in the pace early on and Jay Pharoah’s character doesn’t quite fit in with the overall tone as well. But the final act especially is nearly immaculate in its execution and a great cap on a great film. It gets pretty dark and intense so if you aren’t into a trying psychological thriller then this one might not be for you, otherwise I say definitely check it out.