Films shot by established directors, on shoestring budgets using cheap equipment, tend to be equal parts inspirational and deceiving. If the greatest determining factor of a movie’s quality was the size of its budget, Hollywood studios would be pumping out new masterpieces every week. The most important thing is, was, will always be expertise. Richard Linklater’s filmed theatre drama Tape, shot on high definition video in 2001, cost a paltry sum. But how do you put a price on the experience the cast and crew brought to it?
Prolific director Steven Soderbergh’s new film is a cheap-as-chips, iPhone-shot thriller called Unsane. It stars Claire Foy (best-known for playing Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown) as Sawyer, a traumatised women who checks herself into a mental ward, and is convinced one of the nurses is the same man who has been stalking her for years. Soderbergh’s opening shot is of a forest bathed in blue moonlight. The next one depicts Foy walking down a city street, patches of colour and out of focus objects stylishly obscuring our vision.
Anybody with a smartphone has the technical ability to capture those images, sure. Just as anybody with pen and paper has the technical ability to write one of humanity’s greatest novels. It is not until the third shot, of Foy at work in a bland, orange-coloured office building, that Soderbergh (also the cinematographer, working under the nom de plume of Peter Andrews) reveals the intentionally scuzzy aesthetic that characterises the rest of the film. Like in the recent, Kafkaesque jail movie Brawl in Cell Block 99, the actors are surrounded by large amounts of space and tend to occupy small parts of the frame, connoting powerlessness. It’s as if the spatially displaced Sawyer is battling for a presence; battling for a voice.
This suits the question of the protagonist’s sanity. Does Sawyer deserve our respect, or only our sympathies? We are certainly wary of her, conditioned by umpteen psychological thrillers that came before. Soderbergh prioritises the question of whether the crazy person was right all along over the idea that normal people do crazy things.
Unsane deliberately styled in ways less atmospheric than interesting, more cerebral than emotional.
Here the director paints himself into a corner, where no plot resolution we envision feels particularly compelling. If the man in question is indeed a stalker, there’ll be significant plausibility issues (requiring him to get a job at the same hospital his victim checks into). If he isn’t, and it was in her head all along, that’s hardly an interesting twist.
Foy delivers a headstrong, sallow-faced, angry and flustered performance that is unquestionably arresting, painting a picture of a person who is either right and won’t be believed, or wrong and very ill. But Foy has the entire weight of the film pressed against her. Soderbergh’s direction is the very definition of flashy, despite (and because of) the low-fi texture. Unlike Linklater’s film, the biggest revelations don’t come from dialogue but visual execution.
Unsane is deliberately styled in ways less atmospheric than interesting, more cerebral than emotional. Instead of being liberated by the iPhone’s ultra-mobile qualities, getting up close with his subjects, the director keeps his distance. This distancing echos the themes of the screenplay (by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer) about people lost in the system. Sawyer is told she will remain trapped inside the hospital until her insurance accounts have been drained, putting a political spin on a well-flogged polemic about how the institutions we trust to help us are the ones causing, or at least perpetuating our problems.
At its best, Unsane conjures an exciting if dyspeptic aesthetic, world’s apart from another recent film shot on iPhones – director Sean Baker’s gleaming bright, intensely vivacious drama Tangerine. At its worst it’s just another formulaic scary movie, obsessed only with the possibility of circumventing tropes. If Soderbergh keeps the style and ditches the formula, he might create something truly exciting.