If, as director Steven Soderbergh claims, films like “Unsane” (2018) are the future of cinema, then we can expect the movies of tomorrow to be atmospheric, seedy, chilling — and pretty good. Shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus, “Unsane” follows 20-something businesswoman Sawyer Valentini as she finds herself involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, where apparent encounters with a menacing stalker from her past have Sawyer doubting her own sanity. The film stars Claire Foy of “The Crown” (2016–) and features Jay Pharoah, formerly of “Saturday Night Live” (1975–), and Juno Temple.
The Bleecker Street feature had its premiere at the Berlinale in February and has attracted headlines since then for both its innovative production and its portrayal of corruption in the mental healthcare system. For its part, the iPhone camerawork lends the film an eerie, low-rent quality, which mirrors the manic and muddled workings of Sawyer’s mind. Soderbergh, who personally directed the film’s cinematography and editing, opts for shallow angles and closeups, which give the film’s shots an interrogative feel.
Unlike a long litany of hospital-set films that opt for a shrill, strident, bright-white setting, “Unsane” has a dank, sickly atmosphere. Long hospital corridors are dimly lit, the walls are painted in wan yellows and greens and the colors seem to be saturated with a sickly seaweed color. Fluorescent lights flicker, casting shadows of doubt and distress upon our protagonist’s face. The production design is one of the film’s best strengths; it imbues the film with a look of panic, uncertainty and rot at its heart. It helps the tension build steadily and somewhat unexpectedly toward the climax.
Without spoiling anything, “Unsane” does let itself down somewhat in the film’s climactic moments, which verge on the edge of cartoonish. However, the film more than makes up for it with a well-crafted story and copious amounts of genuine psychological tension. Foy’s performance as a woman caught dead out of her element is believable and darkly relatable. She conveys a keen combination of fear, frustration and resilience as she is subjected to institutionalized corruption, twanging the audience’s anxiety with great effect. In a film that relies so much on her performance, Foy delivers with a turn that may have seemed out of her repertoire to those familiar with her work in “The Crown.”
However, on that note, one weakness of “Unsane” is its supporting characters. Temple’s Violet is competently portrayed but ultimately formulaic as a stereotypical “girl in a mental hospital” type. Pharoah’s recovering opiate addict Nate is believable, and the actor lends his trademark charm to the role, but the character is not given enough to do. Polly McKie’s turn as the uncaring, rough, corrupt head nurse Boles is simply far too predictable.
Two notable exceptions to that trend are Aimee Mullins’ intriguing and far-too-short turn as Ashley, a corrupt administrator reminiscent of Natalie Figueroa from “Orange is the New Black” (2013–) Natalie Figueroa. Joshua Leonard also shines with chilling menace as the stalker, David. Those who remember his recurring work in “Bates Motel” (2013–2017) will particularly like a sequence in which Sawyer details their meeting and his gradually evolving predation, where Leonard expertly showcases his character’s believably alternating manipulation, aggression and nice-guy act. “Unsane” also features a blink-and-you-miss-him Matt Damon as a security consultant who gives Sawyer a darkly ironic briefing on how to protect herself from David’s stalking.
Watching “Unsane” is more of an experience than simply a film. The iPhone camerawork, brilliant set design and lighting and Foy’s standout acting transport audiences down the rabbit hole into the dank nightmare world of corrupt institutions that criminalize mental illness for profit. One would hope Soderbergh’s predictions about the future of cinema are his only correct ones, as his predictions about the present state of mental healthcare hit eerily close to home in “Unsane.”