While Steven Soderbergh’s lastest film may not rise to the level of his best efforts, Unsane is both a frightening take on 21st century horror as well as a remarkable example of technology’s potential to aid and abet the cinematic creative process.
Soderbergh shot Unsane on three iPhone 7-Plus devices using $500 worth of smartphone accessories, including Moment lenses, a FiLMiC Pro app, and a DJI Osmo stabilizer for smooth tracking shots. The film came in at $1.5 million, half the budget (adjusted for inflation) of his breakout film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).
Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a hard-ass rising exec. We soon sense something amiss after she shares shots and beers with a stranger in prelude to a one-night romp back at her place. When a passionate embrace triggers a disturbing flashback, we’re not sure how much is real and how much she’s imagining. Her frequent moves, most recently 450 miles from friends and family, plus a number of restraining orders and potentially reckless sexual behavior, are becoming increasingly problematic.
Sawyer knows she needs help and reaches out to a stalker-victim support group offered by the innocuous sounding Highland Creek Behavioral Center. She explains her situation to an intake therapist, who seems far more focused on making note of Sawyer’s red-flagged words and phrases taken out of context than actually listening to her.
Papers are signed, “Just the usual boilerplate,” she’s told. In fact, Sawyer has unintentionally committed herself to 24 hours of “voluntary” confinement at Highland Creek. Chillingly polite staff escort her into examining rooms locked from the outside; clothes are exchanged for hospital gowns; copious amounts of sedatives administered. Her bloodless, Kafkaesque entanglement in Highland’s life-draining bureaucracy is just beginning.
Sawyer is taken to a barracks-style room with dozens of occupied beds. She meets Violet (Juno Temple), who clearly is not ready for life outside anytime soon. Let’s just say they don’t exactly hit it off. Temple is always interesting to watch, reminiscent of Jennifer Jason Leigh in her more eccentric roles.
Sawyer soon encounters the repulsively unctuous David (Joshua Leonard), a nursing attendant who may have a previous connection to Sawyer. Donned in antiseptically white nursing attire down to his soft-soled footwear muffling every step, David has all the charm of a rabid feline stalking its prey.
Amy Irving is Sawyer’s mom, ready to call in as many lawyers and FBI agents as it takes to spring her daughter from captivity. Nate (Jay Pharoah), Sawyer’s only other ally, is “doing time” for an opiate addiction. He’s caught on to Highland’s corporate game plan: keep the occupancy rate close to 100% and squeeze every last contractually allowed penny they can out of the insurance companies.
Matt Damon shows up in a cameo as Detective Ferguson, a security expert who advises Sawyer on how elude stalkers by reducing her existential imprint.
Comparisons to Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) are inevitable. Baker, whose Florida Project earned Oscar attention earlier this year, filmed Tangerine on a $100,000 budget with three iPhone 5s. Baker made the device an integral part of the story about gender-fluid sex workers whose brand is all about surface images electronically transmitted on internet sex forums. Soderbergh could have made Unsane with conventional equipment without affecting the film’s aesthetic as significantly.
Unsane lacks the consistency we’ve come to expect from Soderbergh, but the film is still worth seeing as an example of what can be done on a micobudget—and as a chilling illustration of how privatization perversely affects institutions created to heal and rehabilitate.
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