by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 23, 2018


In the early scenes of Steven Soderbergh's "Unsane," we're introduced to our protagonist, the awesomely named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, of Netflix's "The Crown"), as she goes about her daily routine. Another day in the office. An urban stroll to grab some lunch. Scarfing that same lunch down while sitting on a park bench and speaking to her mother, Angela (Amy Irving), on FaceTime.

In this scene particularly, it's hard not to notice the voiceless background characters with their faces each buried in a smartphone. All the while, Sawyer's Apple iPhone is prominently photographed with the Apple logo dominating the image on the right side of the frame, making Foy's profile seem inconsequential by comparison.

Soderbergh directed, shot (as Peter Andrews) and edited (as Mary Ann Bernard) "Unsane," further cementing his place as one of modern cinema's hardest-working artists. The filmmaker also photographed this feature entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus using the $14.99 App Store purchase FILMIC Pro, showcasing not only his work ethic but also an unyielding need to always be trying something new.

Reliably versatile in his creative output, Soderbergh crafts perhaps his most horrifying film yet with "Unsane," a chiller that tingles the spine and tickles the funny bone in equal doses. The story follows Foy's Sawyer Valentini, haunted by her recent ordeal with a stalker named David Strine (an unsettling Joshua Leonard). After visiting a therapist at a local hospital, Sawyer signs a few forms she's told are basic and is involuntarily committed to the location's mental institution.

She's told by another patient (Jay Pharoah) it's all a health insurance scam, with the hospital entrapping people who suggest suicidal tendencies during therapy by committing them and letting the insurance companies handle the bill until the well runs dry. But is it really? Sawyer is also convinced that her stalker is posing as an employee of the institution, tormenting her daily with menacing smirks and dangerous gazes. But is he there, or is Sawyer deranged?

That's the overall mystery of this gnarly genre mashup, which blends elements of stalker thrillers, dark comedy, psychological horror and even an indie film if you consider the movie's earnest visual roots. "Unsane" was penned by screenwriting duo Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, and perhaps one of the most shocking elements of the film is this pair's questionable screenplay history - 2006's "Just My Luck" and "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector," and 2010's "The Spy Next Door."

On the visual side, taking the 4K iPhone cinematography for what it is aesthetically, Soderbergh's low-budget effort here manages to create haunting scenes that truly maximize the immersive claustrophobia of the 1.56:1 aspect ratio (though good luck finding a theater that will mask it properly). But the iPhone documenting the action is only the beginning of this movie's scrutiny of how the modern age, technology and social media have shaped us as human beings.

The clever titular twist on the word "Insane" seems to suggest the mental unraveling of being "Unplugged" in today's world, where the layers of Instagram filters, Facebook profiles and device-based anti-socialness peel away to reveal a far uglier side of human nature - the side that comes out once two people are enclosed alone in a room together and left to their own devices (and not ones that run on lithium batteries). Its stalker character is a YouTube comment section incarnate, an embodiment of toxic masculinity that is turned into a base through the film's acidic skewering of sad men who sit at home fantasizing about women they only know through a screen. Claire Foy, as the stalked, is no damsel in distress, slowly shedding her own coatings of fear and insecurity to become something far more volatile and vicious. (It's truly a blisteringly brutal performance that I still find myself thinking about on random occasions.)

"Unsane" questions the true nature of people and curiously explores whether we can even trust our neighbors, creating a strong case for us all to just become hermit crabs viewing the world from a smartphone shell. Soderbergh's film is all this and more, delivering thrills and twists and heart-pounding scenarios, all while prodding the deeper elements of our collective cultural psyche. That is, until the movie ends and we all go back to swiping left or answering HQ Trivia questions or seeing what dumb thing Trump just said on Twitter.