Edwin Arnaudin: There Steven Soderbergh goes again, pushing the boundaries of cinema. 16 years after shooting Full Frontal on MiniDV cameras, he’s made his latest feature, Unsane, entirely with iPhone 7s. Does the experiment pay off or is it merely a failed gimmick?
Bruce Steele: It’s a decent movie, and it’s directed to play up the iPhone aesthetic, with lots of super wide angle shots and ultra-closeups. No one would mistake it for film. So why did it need to get a theatrical release?
Edwin: I think mainly to show that the images this tech is capable of capturing can look great on the big screen. I see it as a call to arms for aspiring filmmakers: They can make a professional-grade movie with what’s in their pockets.
Bruce: I’ll buy that, and I’m always happy to see movies in a theater, but I think most moviegoers are just going to think it looks cheap and might enjoy it more when it’s streaming. While the story isn’t bad, I don’t think it’s gripping enough to make you forget the low tech.
Edwin: The initial scenes have a “looks good for a phone camera” feel, but as troubled millennial Sawyer (Claire Foy, The Crown) finds herself unwittingly committed to a Pennsylvania mental institution, I quickly forgot about the A/V source.
Bruce: The first half of the movie floats a couple intriguing premises: Is Sawyer, who seems and believes she’s sane, really imagining things? And, is she the victim of an insurance scam by an unscrupulous hospital? But neither is fully developed.
Edwin: Incomplete narratives often plague Soderbergh’s films, including but not limited to Contagion and The Good German. He’s foremost a master technician and pulls off plenty of slick pans and smooth tracking shots here, plus one thrilling scene of overlapping imagery that masterfully conveys Sawyer’s drug-induced mania. But yes, I wish the film’s tension and dread were as elevated as its trailer suggested.
Bruce: It settles into a good thriller groove, and Soderbergh does work wonders with the iPhone in disconcerting angles and tense tracking shots. And The Crown fans will be pleased to know that Foy makes a great contemporary American heroine.
Edwin: She’s kind of amazing here. She ably captures Sawyer’s psychological issues through her accelerated talking and disbelieving facial expressions. I’m also taken with SNL vet Jay Pharaoh as a patient seeking opioid addiction treatment and Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project) as Sawyer’s former stalker, who may or may not have infiltrated the hospital.
Bruce: Yes, I was worried at first that we’d be stuck with just Foy and a lot of mediocre supporting players for the whole trip, so Pharaoh’s development into an intriguing character was a relief and a joy. Ditto Amy Irving, who plays Foy’s mother. She’s so real and sane and mom-like, she helps balance out the crazy.
Edwin: Chief among the dull side parts is Violet, played by the talented Juno Temple. She’s a one-dimensional nutcase about which we know nothing else.
Bruce: Yeah, she was just an annoying device to get Sawyer into trouble. But the movie bumps into credibility issues several times. Would patients really be housed in an unmonitored co-ed dorm? It served the plot but it bugged me.
Edwin: The level of staff surveillance is inconsistent at best and makes it difficult to fully comprehend the “rules” of the ward. Perhaps that’s part of the film’s so-so commentary on the modern health care system, but it also lends itself to greater unpredictability within the story, which I appreciate.
Bruce: That said, we should wrap it up before we spoil some of the twists. They’re not all that surprising, and the movie’s never quite as scary as you want it to be, but the less known, the better enjoyed. I’ll give it a B-minus and a pat on the back for trying something different.
Edwin: Agreed on saving those revelations for curious viewers. However, I’m more taken with the film overall and bestow it with a B-plus for Soderbergh, his cast and crew not only meeting the challenges of the experiment, but exceeding it.
Grade: B. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Bleecker Street Media)
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