UNSANE or: Steven Soderbergh Takes the Smart (Phone) Thriller Approach

As someone who has a rule to avoid all previews in theaters and all forms of online advertising, the promotion for the new thriller UNSANE did get past my stubborn policies in a unique way. Slipping through my social media interactions, I discovered that not only has legendary filmmaker Steven Soderbergh returned with another feature film, but it was widely reported that he had lensed the entire feature using the camera mode on a consumer level iPhone. This isn’t the first time this has happened (both Sean Baker’s TANGERINE and Matthew A Cherry’s NINE RIDES also jump to mind as features photographed this way) but to have a filmmaker who has used nearly every motion picture format from 35mm to experimental digital in the last three decades, it immediately struck a chord as to not only what the movie was but the direction he would take it.

I still kept a professional distance from as much pre-release footage as I could, however quickly into the proceedings I understood the reasons for using low-fi approach, and yet his storytelling of a woman trying to escape a horrible situation was also so wonderfully fun and convincing that I simply forgot about it early into its running time.

UNSANE works on a lot of great thriller levels and also delivers a great performance by Claire Foy (From TV’s THE CROWN and also gave a great performance from BREATHE, TIFF 2017) as the aptly named Sawyer Valentini who may or may not be crazy after she is mistakenly admitted into a mental hospital. To Sawyer, she knows she is not supposed to be here but when admitted against a whole group of patients she looks fully assimilated into the place, even more so when she quickly realizes a stalker of hers (played by a nearly unrecognizable Joshua Leonard) is one of her orderlies.

Soderbergh clearly knows what he is doing and he is one of the very few filmmakers that I trust with every project that he takes on. There’s something about his narrative structure and performances that always puts me at ease, even when some of his movies go out of his way to confuse the viewer that demands multiple viewings. With UNSANE I was twisted and turned by his style on several occasions, even with his clever use of flashbacks (one of which even features Matt Damon as a security expert) but hardly ever felt cheated; I loved the balance between the strong Sawyer and how she deals with her stalker, to the hospital workers and policeman who were so realistic and authentic that it felt near documentary-like in his approach.

And getting back to the technical parts; Soderbergh has not only lensed this with a smartphone but a professional lighting & rig crew behind it, he also chose to go to the smaller, boxy 1.37:1 (or 4×3) aspect ratio, a wise choice as it really closes in the surroundings and makes you focus on the characters. There’s a level of intimacy that he gets that a huge film set may not work with, and I really admired the disturbing look and feel (there’s a sequence in a padded room where his technique absolutely works). As well, he has fun with using Steadicam style long-takes in the hospital hallways that amazingly reminded me of the hallways in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING in its use of wide angles. A very smart and effective approach.

UNSANE works incredibly well as a thriller and technical approach, and with every movie having too much revealed ahead of time in its marketing, this is one great example of the less you know going in, the better.

Rating: 9/10

UNSANE is released by 20th Century Fox and is now in theatres.

One Reply to “UNSANE or: Steven Soderbergh Takes the Smart (Phone) Thriller Approach”

  1. Daniel Francis says: Reply

    Very intrigued by the shot-on-phone idea. Tangerine was great and, as you stated the case for Unsafe, quickly forgot about that choice as the movie stood on its own.

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