Insane is not the order of the day in Unsane as Steven Soderbergh uses technology to make us deal with our worst fears.
As a college student, I took a Humanities class called Fiction into Film. Over the course of the semester, we would read a novel and then watch the film the novel was based on and discuss it. One of the selected titles was Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I vividly remember reading the novel with my overactive imagination taking the words and creating a world that freaked me out, but was worthy of exploring. Twenty years later, my overactive imagination has come to life in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane.
In this inverse of Kesey’s novel, which is unrelated to Mr. Soderbergh’s film, Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a successful businesswoman who has a very tough exterior and is very good at her job. Underneath that exterior is a very tormented individual. Early in the film, we see several instances where she tries to combat her demons, but to no success. She ends up talking to a counselor, where she gets some relief, only to find herself involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
The story by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer gives us clues early on as to Sawyer’s state of mind. We know she is in a very fragile state. To astute observers, there are several sequences which play a little too close to reality, but are actually layers within the film building the tension which allows us to join in on Sawyer’s journey. The question on our minds: “is Sawyer insane or am I” came into my thought process.
The supporting cast Mr. Soderbergh used to surround Ms. Foy is first rate. Joshua Leonard will be familiar to audiences from his turn in the original The Blair Witch Project and is super creepy here. Jay Pharoah is a stand-up comedian and is exceptional as David Strine. You just want to hate Juno Temple’s Violet, but she’s such a good foil for Sawyer that it makes her performance that much stronger. Amy Irving plays Angela, Sawyer’s mother, a strong character in her own right. The highlight of the cast is Polly McKie, the Scottish actress who plays Nurse Boles. She channels her inner-Nurse Ratched as she takes Sawyer in. Their scenes together are dynamite.
One of Mr. Soderbergh’s best filmmaking attributes is his ability to take risks. Unsane is no exception. Here he used an Apple iPhone 7 Plus in 4K using the FiLMiC Pro app. To make a major film using nothing more than a smart phone is insane, and yet, Mr. Soderbergh understands his canvas. The use of such a small camera allowed for unique angles and close-ups that created an intimacy in the visual storytelling and was effective at putting us in the middle of Sawyer’s journey. At the same time, the color pallet was muted, in line with the nature of the story.
Even with all the technical wizardry at work here, there were some leaps at logic in the story that made me cringe. They are so far and few between that I still think this risk paid off for Mr. Soderbergh. I applaud his unique style of storytelling here that I think will inspire other filmmakers to use the tech to create their own brand of storytelling.
Mr. Soderbergh has struck gold again with this format. In theaters now, Unsane will rattle cages. It is unsettling both in story and in the format. And it’s meant to be. Sometimes we need to face our inner demons to become stronger individuals. Unsane does exactly that.
Now in theaters, Unsane has been rated R by the MPAA.