Dealing with very real horrors like stalking, mental health, and involuntary commitment, Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane begins as a taut, exciting thriller. Likeable yet stand-offish Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) fears that her stalker has followed her across the country to her new job, and so she visits a psychiatric hospital to talk to a therapist about her situation. Soon, however, things take a dark turn, and we’re left wondering what’s real, and what is merely the hallucinations of a deteriorating mind.
On paper, this are-they-or-are-they-not-crazy plotline isn’t incredibly original. Even last year’s A Cure for Wellnesstoyed with similar ideas. Miraculously, Soderbergh manages to hook the audience and differentiate with not only an outstanding first act, but a presentation that is more than just a gimmick: the entire movie is filmed on an iPhone 7. This lends itself to the themes of insidious voyeurism and invasive terror that Unsane is working with, and makes for some brilliantly original cinematography.
But what begins as a suspenseful and frightening experience quickly becomes another beast entirely – one lacking the claws of Unsane’s first half. Without delving into spoilers, the excruciating tension built up by Sawyer’s early experiences at the psychiatric hospital become disappointingly familiar as the plot progresses, and one misplaced twist after another chips away at what could have been an incredible thriller.
Still, Claire Foy’s powerhouse of a performance means that things are never dull. Beginning as a relatively put-together individual and dipping into something a little more unsure, Sawyer Valentini is a character that works perfectly within this situation. Every attempt at convincing hospital staff of her sanity comes across as an aggressive assertion of innocence – leading to moments that are downright unnerving. Involuntary commitment is perhaps something not everybody is familiar with, and despite the film exaggerating some aspects of the concept, it utilises it successfully as a basis for some damn good horror.
The film’s soundtrack is just as effective as Foy’s performance when it comes to selling what is ultimately a relatively familiar concept as fresh. Varying from deafening screeches to monotonous, thudding beats, Unsane uses every trick in the book to grab you by the collar and dare you to look away. Even silence is used effectively, and dampened soundscapes occasionally heighten already high moments of eeriness.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to ignore an ending that undermines all the hard work the rest of the film does to convince you that perceptions of reality are malleable. I want to love Unsane, and I genuinely do appreciate all the unique flair that is injected into its breakneck 97-minute runtime. But some third-act silliness hinders what could have been a real classic.
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While it should be appreciated as far more than just 'that iPhone thriller movie', Unsane misses the mark with a third act that is well below everything else in the film.
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