iPhone-Shot Horror Pic "Unsane" Gives Tech A Good Name

Warning: moderate “Unsane” spoilers below.

June 1, 2017: Outfitted with an iPhone 7 Plus, three attachable camera lenses, two video apps, and an eager cast, “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Magic Mike” filmmaker Steven Soderbergh begins production on low budget horror-thriller “Unsane.” The film’s very existence remains a secret for nearly two more months, unceremoniously trickling out in the run-up to the director’s first theatrical release in four years (“Logan Lucky”). His unretirement is warmly received. Little does anyone know how quietly incendiary a follow-up is waiting in the wings.

The Claire Foy-starring “Unsane” is not the first feature film to be shot on an iPhone (“The Florida Project” auteur Sean Baker made 2015 indie darling “Tangerine” the same way), but it’s the highest in profile by far, with distributor Bleecker Street rolling out its incongruously sparkling 4K resolution and scuzzy mental hospital aesthetic on more than 2,000 screens in North America. Soderbergh, known in part for a host of experimental releases over the years, appreciates better than anyone the increasing power in DIY filmmaking – in being able to put a camera wherever you want, whenever you want.

“Unsane” sees the director weaponize that power, evincing that a deliciously disturbing horror pic captured with a phone can be as or more stimulating than a Roger Deakins-shot epic.

Your move, Rog.

Foy (Netflix series “The Crown”) plays Sawyer Valentini, a smart thirty-something businesswoman struggling with mental health issues in the wake of years of harassment. A stalker and his escalating intimidation tactics compel our protagonist to move and maintain an inordinately low profile; the residual stress results in a nervous breakdown. Sawyer visits a therapist, acknowledges thoughts of suicide, and hastily signs a seemingly harmless document, unwittingly committing herself to a hospital’s psychiatric ward for at least 24 hours.

The screenplay, penned by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, quickly begins to play off the trauma of its lead, positioning itself as a spaced-out paranoia-fest. Sawyer is tormented by a fellow patient (Juno Temple), kept by the hospital in service of an insurance scam, and begins to see visions of her stalker, a bearded man named David Strine (Joshua Leonard), working as a hospital orderly. The truth is liable to induce death chills: it is her stalker.

Soderbergh leans into the early paranoia conceit, but not too hard, knowing that a guessing game is more fun than outright tricking viewers. The big reveal isn’t treated as such, an expert move that shows a filmmaker in more control of a script than its writers, deftly navigating us through a significant tonal shift and a few logical chasms like the old master he is. (Composer Thomas Newman’s sparse but killer score helps, too.) What’s on the other side is glorious: an uncommonly slick slasher that lightly evokes the early works of genre masters Wes Craven and John Carpenter as well as handheld progenitor “The Blair Witch Project” – starring the very same Joshua Leonard.

Like in that film, the cast here proves indispensable. Beyond Foy’s believably tortured performance, Jay Pharoah, formerly of “Saturday Night Live,” makes an arresting turn as Nate, a fellow patient of Sawyer’s and her only ally in the hospital. The actor’s easy rapport with Foy fused with an undercurrent of uneasiness on the part of his character goes a long way in helping us suspend our disbelief, both before and after the screenplay finishes toying with that very notion. Then there’s Leonard, who is most unnerving, his vaguely familiar presence slowly building to the level of sinister called for by the movie’s stomach-turning third act.

Conversely, a cameo by an all too familiar Oscar-winner falls flat, whisking us out of the film’s dingy reality into something closer to the studio thriller it’s thankfully not.

Although “Unsane” might require an unusual taste for both high and lowbrow cinema, and its approach may strike celluloid purists as anathema (fear not, Chris Nolan, there’s still a place for actual film in the hearts of most movie lovers), Soderbergh’s 27th film strikes as an immediate cult hit – the kind whose small budget will ensure success ad infinitum. It’s also the rare movie that might be justifiably viewed on a cell phone. It seems only right that the artist who came to fame with “sex, lies, and videotape” 30 years ago would make this particular act of cinematic revolution.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: March 23, 2018
Studio: Bleecker Street
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriters: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharaoh, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing behavior, violence, language, and sex references)