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Unsane is a gritty ode to exploitation horror without the baggage

By Leigh Monson 

  It's hard to say why filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (of Ocean's Eleven and Logan Lucky fame) opted to film his latest, Unsane, on an iPhone. This might just be a case of a filmmaker taking a trend becoming popular in the independent microbudget scene and opting to try his hand at it, making a film that is visually distinct if only because it is filmed on a cheap camera that has been deemed good enough by those without the resources to use something more professional.
  However, like with most of Soderbergh's films, there seems to be a deeper purpose to his work than making a piece of straightforward genre entertainment. In fact, the ugly aesthetic of Unsane calls to mind a grittier time in cinema, when low budget films achieved theatrical distribution through appealing to violence and sexuality. And for his purposes here, he manages to replicate that feel without making it unpalatable to a more progressive modern audience.
  The film follows Sawyer (Claire Foy), a high-powered business woman trying to make it in a new city where she doesn't know anyone. It soon becomes clear that Sawyer didn't move to this new city to take a job, but rather to escape a stalker, who is the reason she suffers from paranoia, anxiety toward connecting with people, and a general sense of depression. She goes to a clinic to speak with a psychiatrist about her mental health issues and afterward is asked to sign some "routine" paperwork. Sawyer then finds herself trapped in the clinic under psychiatric watch, being told that she is mentally unstable and has voluntarily committed herself with that paperwork she signed. While in the clinic, though, Sawyer starts to suspect that her stalker may be in the building with her.
  Though the film does briefly toy with the notion that Sawyer may actually be suffering from delusions, it's evident fairly quickly that there is, in fact, something fishy going on with the clinic. What follows is violent, disturbing, and harrowing, as Sawyer has to come to grips with being held against her will by an organization that doesn't actually care for her mental well-being. Thing is, though, to a certain perspective, Sawyer might be easily perceived as mentally unwell, as she is prone to violent outbursts and antisocial behavior, but her behavior is also totally understandable given the situation she finds herself in.
  Soderbergh isn't afraid to play with making his protagonist unlikeable, and Claire Foy gives a performance that perpetually keeps you wondering if she's someone we should be rooting for, even as she's forced to confront the realities of her unjust captivity.
     The gritty nature of filming on an iPhone camera does leave the film looking ugly, which is offputting particularly when the camera can't keep up with moments of quick motion, but it's an ugliness that is meant to reflect the perversity of the situation Sawyer finds herself in. And while the film toys with your expectation that things are going to become too thematically dark or undermine the empathy you have for Sawyer, it pulls a series of reversals that are surprising as they are satisfying. This isn't a film for everyone, but if you like the idea of closed location psycho thriller without the problematic baggage a film like that might inspire in a lesser filmmaker, Unsane might be for you.
4/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.