Often times some of the most effective Horror films are also the simplest – The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, It Follows and The Babadook are examples of this. But there is a very fine line between being simple and being downright cheap, something which could very easily have happened to Unsane, the latest film from Ocean’s Eleven director, Steven Soderbergh, which was filmed entirely on an iPhone.
Unsane follows Sawyer Valentini (The Crown’s Claire Foy) a troubled businesswoman whose new life begins to unravel when she begins seeing the stalker she thought left behind. Seeking support, Sawyer unknowingly finds herself involuntarily committed to a mental asylum and cut off from the outside world. Whilst inside, the twisted system and visions of her stalker begin to twist her psyche as the lines between what’s real and not begin to blur.
Whilst the concept of shooting a film entirely on a smartphone may remind people of the low budget projects you would find on YouTube, Soderbergh manages to pull it off successfully in a way that makes for gripping and uneasy viewing. Several of the long shots early on in the film featuring Foy’s character from a distance take on an almost voyeuristic approach whilst the scenes shot actually in the asylum come across as tight and enclosed, creating a real sense of being trapped within those same four walls as the characters.
Foy puts in a stellar performance as the damaged Sawyer, constantly leaving the audience to figure out if she is telling the truth or merely suffering from a case of delusion. Even as the answer was seemingly given it was hard to know for sure. On the opposite side of the coin is Joshua Leonard, who portrays the man who Sawyer believes to be stalking her. In this role he manages to balance both unassuming and incredibly dangerous creating a character who is both terrifying and terrifyingly real.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Juno Temple as the psychotic Violet, Jay Pharoah as Nate a fellow patient on Sawyer’s side and Amy Irving as Sawyer’s concerned mother and Aimee Mullins as the unsympathetic head of the institute, all of whom do a great job with their roles despite their limited screen time.
The story itself is incredibly engaging with a lot of the horror in the early scenes coming from the idea of being trapped in a corrupt system which only seems care about the money they can make and the idea that it may actually be all in your head. Unfortunately a lot of the uncertainty is lost in the second half of the film when it instead opts for a more traditional horror approach eventually leading to a prolonged chase sequence which wasn’t really necessary.
Being able to create a horror film that is both effective and unique with just a smartphone goes a long way to say to showing why Soderbergh is such a unique director – and hopefully, the film will manage to shed some light on some important issues including the long-term effects of abuse can have on its victims.