Edition 26 April 2018, by James Luxford
Ever since his arrival on the film scene in the late 1980’s, Steven Soderbergh has never been one for convention. Having declared his retirement in 2010, he returned to the big screen with 2016 comedy Logan Lucky and is back this month with ‘surprise’ horror movie Unsane. Made in secret and filmed using only iPhones, the film is the story of stressed businesswoman Sawyer (Claire Foy), who is unwittingly committed to a mental institution. Once inside, she learns that the institution is conspiring against her, and a stalker she has moved across the country to escape is working within the hospital. However, with her troubled state of mind exacerbated by force-fed medication, can she trust what she sees?
Unnerving and disorientating to watch, Soderbergh’s new film treads similar ground to his viral horror Contagion, in that it uses serious concerns to elicit terror. In this case, the terror comes from the corruption of the medical system, where patients are trapped (in this case literally) in the pursuit of insurance dollars. It’s lofty subject matter, but Unsane is more interested in making you bite your nails than making you think about mental health. In that sense it is a success, as Sawyer’s plight becomes unbearably claustrophobic, with the iPhone perspective making everything visually jarring. It’s entertaining to see a director of Soderbergh’s talent experimenting with a new format, which is presumably what tempted him to come out of retirement in the first place. The trade-off is that the film is much more about its process than its characters. Sawyer’s stalker, her mental health, and everything else in the film is there to create a mood rather than dictate the pace, which leads to some odd logical leaps but still a more interesting experience than most horror films. This is Foy’s first work since leaving hit series The Crown, and the first chance to see how the actress carries a movie on her own. Fans will be pleased to hear that she gives the occasionally outlandish story a grounding of emotion, working well opposite co-star Juno Temple (playing a creepy fellow patient) as well as impressive cast who work with relatively undefined characters.
Unsane is a fun horror film, albeit one that is more interested in how things look than how they feel. It’s a pleasure to see a director who is keen to stretch the limits, and even if the finished product is a little uneven the experiment is worth observing.