Unsane, shot entirely on iPhones, is a new experiment for Soderbergh, which makes it as quintessential a representation of his style as the slicker Logan Lucky.
When Steven Soderbergh returned from his premature feature filmmaking retirement last year with Logan Lucky, he was received less with celebration than a collective feeling of inevitability. The director’s restless creativity meant that he was bound to branch back into features sooner rather than later, and, furthermore, his supposed exile from features was inherently laughable given how much he’d already done to stretch the boundaries of feature filmmaking. Unsane, a thriller shot entirely on iPhones, is a new experiment for Soderbergh, which makes it as quintessential a representation of his style as the slicker, Oceans-esque caper of Logan Lucky.
Soderbergh’s use of iPhones is not merely a gimmick but a core component of the film’s aesthetic choices. From the opening shot, which peers through a dirty window and bushes to gaze at Sawyer (Claire Foy) as she crosses a street, the cinematography reflects the feeling of the protagonist being constantly observed, feeding into her lingering trauma over being stalked. Soderbergh’s trademark use of negative space regularly positions Sawyer in the foreground at the edge of the frame, but the flattened dimensions of the iPhone’s resolution compress the depth of the wide backgrounds surrounding. This creates a sense of claustrophobia even in the most ostensibly open compositions, filtering the world through Sawyer’s nervous perspective. Later flashbacks reveal the toll that her situation has taken on her and how reporting her stalker came with detailed instructions from the police about how to protect herself from being monitored and followed, but it’s obvious from the outset that she has grown accustomed to looking over her shoulder.
The constant pressure of such fear threatens to destabilize Sawyer, and when she imagines seeing the face of her pursuer, she heads to a nearby hospital to speak to a counselor (Myra Lucretia Taylor). The meeting is off-kilter, with Sawyer speaking frankly about her fears and worries as the counselor never presses deeper, asking only if Sawyer ever contemplated suicide. When the woman admits that she has, the consultation turns even colder, with the counselor abruptly handing over medical paperwork to be signed, assuring Sawyer that it’s just boilerplate legalese. When Sawyer attempts to leave, however, she is detained, discovering too late that she signed a voluntary commitment that sees her confined to a mental ward with patients whose leering curiosity compounds her bewilderment with traumatic triggers.
Here the film becomes something nebulous, mingling several different subgenres of suspense. Sawyer’s increasingly frantic, even violent, struggle to be released make her seem more and more imbalanced, which plays naturally into psychological thriller, especially when she becomes convinced that one of the orderlies, George (Joshua Leonard), is actually her stalker, David. Counterbalancing Sawyer’s possible descent into genuine madness is her stabilizing friendship with another patient, Nate (Jay Pharoah), who points out that the hospital’s insistence on keeping her under watch owes less to genuine concern and more about hitting quotas and bleeding Sawyer’s insurance for all its worth, adding an element of Big Pharma paranoia redolent of Soderbergh’s earlier Side Effects. Toward the end of the film, there’s even a bit of warped erotic thriller as Sawyer attempts any way she can to escape her predicament.
Several twists prevent spoiler-free discussion of some of Unsane’s best moments, including a show-stopping confrontation between two characters that stands as one of the best-acted sequences Soderbergh has ever filmed. The acting comes to the fore in these late stages as the director compresses the image more and more, closing in that much tighter on Sawyer as her paths to escape narrow. Some scenes set in a padded solitary confinement cell are extra nightmarish thanks to the iPhone’s limited low-light resolution, rendering its minimal lighting blotchy and rust-colored, finding ample room in the small space for patches of shadow. Wide-angle compositions gazing down on Sawyer artificially shrink her, rendering her as a helpless toddler crawling around the room. The film resolves along relatively traditional thriller parameters, but that in itself is a testament to how thoroughly Soderbergh has dissolved the usual distinctions in “one for them, one for me” relationships between auteurs and studios, showing off the director’s undiminished formal curiosity with narrative and thematic structures to give those experiments recognizable shape.