Unsane (2018) by Steven Soderbergh
Review by Zach Dennis
There’s something a tad off-putting about the camera work in Unsane. The pigments feel too clear, the motion feels so smooth there’s almost a mechanical quality to the way characters move and emote, and every shot feels either way too close or way too far away — as if something in the middle is unreachable.
It helps to know that the entire film, the latest from director Steven Soderbergh, was shot entirely on an iPhone. The 7 Plus model has a 4K digital camera and this decision to utilize the handheld device most people carry with them every day as the principal image-capturing format for the movie makes every step by Sawyer (Claire Foy) seem like it was shot by an amateur.
The final product is far from amateur as Unsane feels like a thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma, but supplemented for the digital age — an age where autonomous technology is as analogous as breathing.
The film follows Sawyer, who has just moved to a new job and is trying to acclimate to her new situation — lascivious boss and meddlesome co-workers in tow. But something haunts Sawyer — a stalker — and the images of his face are seared into every day interactions, making a routine one-night stand become a moment of shock horror.
In an attempt to find any sense of normalcy, Sawyer visits a mental health institution in search of a cyber-stalking support group to work through her rising anxieties. Her concerns are heard, but unbeknownst to her, the treatment includes 24 hours inside the institution for careful observation.
After a first night filled with violent outbursts — some instigated by the bevy of other members already inside, including the volatile Violet (Juno Temple) and even-tempered Nate (Jay Pharaoh) — Sawyer’s stay escalates from one day to seven.
To add to the frustration, Sawyer believes one of the nurses in the ward has a striking resemblance to her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), but is going under the name, George Shaw.
What resonates most with Unsane is the unnerving effect the iPhone filming creates. Soderbergh has voiced his pleasure with using the device — going as far as to say he will use it for all his movies moving forward — but there is something uneasy about the way it’s used in the film, and that is to its compliment.
Early in Unsane, we watch Sawyer walking from work to her lunch break and the camera peers from behind a tree — leaves and limbs obstructing some of the view. In other scenes, it takes a more omnipresent approach, shifting to high in the ceiling — almost creating the feeling of a security camera watching below on Sawyer.
Her history with her stalker comes from consistent harassment over text message, phone call and social media — going as far as to having him enter her home while she is in the shower or a spur of the moment visit to her mother’s house. Later in the film, she is visited by a detective (played by Matt Damon in a perk up cameo), who instructs her to essentially disassociate herself with any form of social media, to park her car in front of her apartment and under a light with her car key in hand as she walks along the illuminated path in order to allow others to see her at all times.
There’s something telling about the film’s message that the only way to combat social media or cyber harassment is to completely dispel it from your life. As if the only way to avoid this type of harassment and invasive activity is to not engage with the Internet at all. It seems like an extreme measure, but one that becomes more understandable in a week marred by news surrounding Facebook pulling user data and the ever-present role of Russia hackers in social media around the time of the 2016 election. The only safe way to be online is to not be online at all.
In this sense, Unsane almost makes the stalker less of a physical presence (though, David is very much there physically in the story), but more of a cloud-based terror. Going back to the way Soderbergh films Sawyer, there is a deep stench of “Big Brother” syndrome suffocating every sequence with the film’s lead.
Inside the institution, there are many bureaucratic layers from the doctor Sawyer speaks with to the administrative officer who diverts Sawyer’s mother’s attention another way when she comes asking questions. The institution itself becomes an embodiment of the internet in this way with gatekeepers and roadblocks at every turn, and an outside promise of freedom and satisfaction that becomes less and less apparent the deeper Sawyer goes.
The invention of the iPhone “created a portable personal technology infrastructure that’s almost infinitely expandable,” Kalle Lyytinen said in a 2017 piece for Scientific American. It’s true that we probably are never able to fully grasp the far reaches offered by the iPhone's capabilities, but much like Sawyer in the institution, there also seems to be a barrier — a limit — to what we can do and discover.
In this way, the anxiety evoked while locked away in Unsane is less on the physical presence of a man seeking to do harm on Sawyer, but more of a technological realm that has evolved into something grander than a personal escape and useful tool to interact with friends and family. The phone has morphed into a stone and mortar jail of our own creation and Sawyer’s fear comes from the fact that her monster found a way to exploit that personal space for his own ambitions.
What is so scary in Unsane is not that we are seeing yet another character trapped in a haunted house with a monster on the loose that no one sees, but that the haunted house was supposed to be our escape, our respite, our sanctuary and these terms have lost their value in a digital age where succumbing to complacency in technological form opens you up to hives of invasions and hidden transactions of your personality, likeness, etc.
It is unclear if who Sawyer is seeing in the institution is actually the man that actively stalked her prior to her incarceration. We assume she sees his face when kissing a man she met at a bar and is looking for a one-night stand with because she recoils and rushes to the bathroom in a panic. At the end of the film, she begins to feels his presence again while eating lunch with a co-worker and notices similar features on the back of a man’s head across the restaurant.
This scene dissolves as she carries a knife over and is struck with the realization, once the man turns his head, that it is not David. Screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer shape Sawyer as somewhat of an unreliable narrator, but it is difficult to just ignore her fears and complaints in a time where women are coming forth daily with fears of men in their lives and workplaces that impose themselves and their power onto them without any recourse — again adding another layer to the technological anxiety being invoked in the narrative.
You have to treat what Sawyer is saying at any moment as truth because we can't just discard her as we've done in the past, but we also can't just take what she is saying on face value because her digital personality has been compromised.
Unsane isn’t perfect and it doesn’t necessarily engage with the ideals of capitalism, health care and mental health that it wants to as well as it should. But there is something terrifying about its approach to a digital consciousness that feels too close to home.
The internet came with this amazing promise of freedom and a wealth of knowledge and ideas, but in the end, it is just a toxic place filled with restrictions, handicaps and safeguards that are more crushing and consuming than we would really rather believe.