Image: IMDB / New Regency Pictures
Given how far smartphones have come, it was only a matter of time before directors started getting creative with them. That's part of the hook behind Unsane, a psychological thriller shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus.
It's not a stock iPhone, with director Steven Soderbergh using three special lenses and the standard iPhone lens. But Unsane was captivating enough that I forgot to keep looking for the visual differences - although there are some unmistakable scenes that the iPhone can't quite handle.
Unsane, from start to finish, is really Claire Foy's movie. Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a young professional who recently moved across the United States for a new job. It's quickly revealed that she fled her previous city due to a stalker, however, and the emotional scars from that travelled with her.
To find some solace, Sawyer visits a local hospital to see a psychologist. After an initial session, she tries to book regular appointments. But rather than booking a follow-up, the hospital commits her for observation. After Sawyer responds violently, due to the confusion and fear of being held against her will, she's recommitted for a full week - without being able to inform her colleagues, boss or family.
Unsane is shot almost entirely in the hospital, and it helps explain why Soderbergh wanted to use the iPhone in the first place. Being committed is an acutely intense, private experience. Being committed against your will even more horrific, one that's compounded upon after Unsane adds a frightening level of plausibility.
As explained by Nate (Jay Pharoah), committed patients are usually only released once their health insurer stop paying the bills. That encourages the the administration to deceive patients into committing themselves, allowing the hospital to recoup funds from insurers. It's the kind of experience that Australians, at least, don't have to face. How true it is for the United States healthcare system is another matter entirely, but the setup is believable enough to add another level of fear.
Things don't really kick off until, the second day of her committal, Sawyer sees David Strine (Joshua Leonard) in hospital garb, handing out pills to the patients. She freaks out immediately - she's taken a restraining order out on Strine, and fled her friends and family to get some distance from David. But having changed his name to "George Shaw", the hospital thinks Sawyer is just losing the plot and restrains her immediately.
The moments where Sawyer is pushed to the brink - restrained against her will, drugged and, eventually, locked up in solitary confinement - is where the iPhone comes into its own. Unsane uses a lot of close up shots, flitting between the iPhone's standard lens and fisheye lens depending of the intensity of the scene in question. And it enhances the stalker element, the feeling that you're invading someone's personal space.
There are times where the iPhone just isn't capable enough - the phone can't handle low light the same way a professional movie camera, or even a high-end DSLR, can. Some scenes have a distinct lack of sharpness and detail too. But when you're watching Sawyer react in utter disbelief to the indifference of hospital management, or terror as the range of David's obsession hits home, the technical aspects become far less important.
Image: IMDB / New Regency Pictures
Foy's performance helps too, although Sawyer as a character jarringly veers from one extreme to the other. It does result in an outstanding scene where Sawyer belittles and mocks Strine in solitary confinement, taunting his lack of sexual experience and social anxiety. It's an empowering scene, unencumbered by the iPhone's limitations and a reminder that good performances are good under any scenario, despite the equipment, budget or extenuating circumstances.
As a whole, Unsane works. it's worth remembering that you are, for the most part, witnessing the cold interior of a psychiatric ward and the damaged people inside. Understandably, a lot of the movie is visually dull and dank, light on colour and a lot of lost detail. It's a metaphor for the patients, really.
It's also a good illustration that a phone isn't quite an apt replacement for professional cameras just yet. But Unsane is shot cleverly enough that it's worth a watch, even if psychological horror isn't your preferred genre.