The bulk of today’s horror thrillers suffer from narrative implausibility, so they resort to fantasy, gore, and CGI to make up for poor storytelling. Unsane (2018)is different. It was shot entirely on an iPhone; its central premise is plausible; and it blends old fashioned horror tropes into a modern story of how insanity can be commercially exploited.
The plotline is simple: young and highly-strung Sawyer (Claire Foy) has quit her job and moved cities because she believes she is being stalked. Without tangible evidence, no one believes her. She deals with her doubts and anxiety with medication and finally sees a therapist. When she mentions once thinking of suicide, the therapist persuades her to sign an agreement to a 24-hour stay in a behavioural clinic. Once admitted, she realises the implications of losing her freedom and lashes out verbally and physically. She is restrained, but her behaviour worsens when she thinks the stalker is on staff. When the hospital extends her stay to one week, events spiral out of control. Sawyer’s loss of agency and struggle for survival, together with rising paranoia, leave the audience unsure of whether she is mad, bad, or trapped in an evil place.
One of the effects of the iPhone filming technique is how it accentuates the claustrophobic feeling of losing personal freedom. Vignette lighting closes space and weird depth of field effects create a foreboding atmosphere. You notice it early and it quickly becomes the new normal, as does the fluid framing and earthy realism. Claire Foy is excellent in controlling the emotional roller-coaster on which Sawyer is travelling. The support cast are solid, but the film does have limitations. For example, the quick and easy manner in which Sawyer is processed into the clinic and the unrestrained liberties taken by staff and patients require some suspension of disbelief to keep the story alive. The story’s tension curve peaks then flatlines too early, and the stalker is strangely unconvincing as either a nutter or a love-struck suitor.
What lingers most from this film is the frighteningly small gap that exists between normality and insanity, and how other people might manipulate the difference. When Sawyer is labelled unstable the dominos fall, and she becomes ensnared by a system that could trap any of us. Unsane is engaging, provocative, and uneven, but with enough interesting features to be worth watching. That seems to be the most you can hope for in a horror thriller these days.
Director: Stephen Soderbergh
Stars: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah