The iPhone documentary Unsane only has a few scenes in which the device is used, teaches us almost nothing about how it functions, its history, or its potential, and instead focuses on a woman who winds up committed inside of a mental hospital for a week—while believing that her stalker is working there. Oh, what’s that? It’s not an iPhone documentary? My mistake. If the press would have used a word other than “iPhone” in its coverage of Unsane, maybe we’d be able to focus on something else instead of the device on which it was shot.
Yes, Unsane is a theatrical movie shot on an iPhone, a gimmick—and it’s a gimmick, folks—we’ve seen before with the likes of Tangerine, but put to good use here by director Steven Soderbergh in order to create a feeling of unease in the audience. It doesn’t look like many films you’ll watch, using different framing and stylistic devices that, while capable on non-iPhone devices, are probably easier to create with its various apps. And that feeling helps Unsane function as a psychological paranoia thriller, putting us in the same headspace as its protagonist.
That protagonist is Sawyer (Claire Foy), who had a stalker in Boston (Joshua Leonard), moved in order to get away from him, but still feels uneasy. She seeks a therapist, signs some forms, and finds herself voluntarily committed to a mental hospital for 24 hours—which gets expanded to a week after she throws a fit and strikes both a fellow patient and one of the staff, the latter of whom she, for a second, believed was her stalker.
Unsane toys with the idea that it might all be in Sawyer’s head for a while, but not long enough. We eventually find out the truth, not just about the stalker but about this hospital, and that kills a lot of its potential fun. Seeing it all play out isn’t dull, but it does lose its main element. A late-game editing decision that gives away a character’s fate too early is baffling, removing most of the tension of a later scene in the process. And there’s also a distracting cameo from a famous person that takes one out of the experience.
Unsane is a psychological paranoia stalker thriller that happens to be shot on an iPhone, giving it an immersive cinematographic style.
In order for a movie like Unsane to work, we need to constantly be feeling what Sawyer is feeling. And we do, for the most part. But it’s points like those that take us out of the experience. The cinematography is immersive, though, and Claire Foy’s performance is great. And the story is compelling enough—it winds up mostly working as a stalker thriller, a “is she/isn’t she crazy?” story, and a condemnation of for-profit medical systems.
Outside of the immersion factor, shooting on an iPhone poses challenges that the technology hasn’t quite yet conquered. Many of the low-light shots are not very good—they’re ill-defined and murky. And some of the other shots look like they belong in a student’s short film, not in a movie being released in theaters. Does it ultimately matter? Not a whole lot. It still works because of the subject matter, and one can only expect that someone like Steven Soderbergh, who has worked in this industry for decades and often serves as his own cinematographer, did this all of this on purpose.
Unsane is a psychological paranoia stalker thriller that happens to be shot on an iPhone, giving it an immersive cinematographic style whose immersion is broken by a couple of poor decisions that take us out of the experience. And once the spell is broken, it’s hard to get sucked back in. It also doesn’t play with the “is she/isn’t she crazy?” story as long as one might expect, taking away one of its most enjoyable elements. Still, with a great performance from Claire Foy and enough working in its favor, Unsane is a worthwhile thriller.
Conclusion: Unsane has a couple of immersion-breaking decisions that hurt it, and I’m not 100% sold on the shot-on-an-iPhone gimmick, but it’s an effective thriller.
Recommendation: If its central gimmick or its plot interest you, Unsane is worth checking out.