UNSANE, Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, would be considered mostly forgettable if it did not have the distinctions of being both Soderbergh’s first horror film and filmed entirely on an iPhone. Beyond those two nuggets and some genuinely solid performances, UNSANE is largely disposable.
The film’s primary focus is Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a career-focused woman with a troubling past. She has picked up her life in Boston and transplanted it to Pennsylvania to escape a stalker. Sawyer is in desperate need of some good counseling, and seeks out treatment at a local clinic. When she mentions that she has, in the past, thought of harming herself to escape the torment of her tormenter, the counselor has her committed for a few days to make sure that she is no threat to herself or others. While in the inpatient facility with some actual nutjobs, Sawyer’s stalker reappears (or does he?) and Sawyer must try to grapple with her own very questionable sanity.
Foy’s performance as the difficult patient is excellent. This film would have been a complete disaster without the anchor of Foy. Sawyer is a complicated woman. She is demanding and entitled. She is difficult to get along with and ineffectively manipulative. And, possibly due to her mental health history, she has an impossibly short fuse. All of this makes her not only seems like a three dimensional character, but also like an unsympathetic character who doesn’t deserve to be the victim of stalking, but kinda deserves to be committed for a little bit.
Where the film falls apart is its lack of commitment to being a horror film. Sure, it gets there eventually. But whenever it teases at some actual terror and dread, the illusion is dropped quickly and any tension built is undercut far sooner than it should have ended. So the big, scary questions asked in the film (Is Sawyer crazy? Is her stalker actually an orderly at the hospital? Is her mother going to help her?) get definitive answers before you are able to squirm in the potential ambiguity of the unnerving situations.
The fact that the film was shot on an iPhone mostly enhances the lackluster plot. Sawyer is often shown in quite tight close ups, and we can see her nervousness and concern in striking proximity. Though I tend to like my horror films more polished and lush, UNSANE is justas intentionally visually styled, and it uses this gimmick to its advantage.
I am not saying specifically that UNSANE should be avoided, but if you do choose to see it, keep your expectations reserved, even when the film itself promises you more.