Unsane is a miniature revolution

I’ve been incredibly lax on here of late – who knew that writing a dissertation would steal all my writing time? So I’m trying to catch up on giving you some thoughts on the most interesting films I’ve caught this year. First up: a horror movie that barely appeared in cinemas but is now easily available to stream and well worth your time. 

Another Steven Soderbergh product appears from seemingly nowhere, and the world fails to take notice. With his new Asylum-set Horror Unsane, the restless master director has given us yet another tempered version of genre fare, the usual shocks stripped back until all that remains is a depiction of the processes that make nightmares into reality. What sets Unsane apart, however, is how he’s shot it: on an iPhone, and boy, does it work for him.

One early scene has Claire Foy on facetime to her mother from a bench at work, but Soderbergh shoots it in traditional over the shoulder coverage, as though the phone is itself a person worthy of equal visual weight in the scene. It highlights how comfortable people have become with technology, its ability to connect and recreate human habits. While he’s always adapting to different formats, from DV for Bubble or using 1940s cameras for The Good German, it is an obsession with the minutiae of human behaviour that links all the Soderbergh texts.

You can see this in a flashback where Matt Damon shows up as a P.I. who helps Foy to protect herself at home from a stalker. In a monotone, he rattles off a list of adjustments she needs to make to her day-to-day life, a prison she needs to create for herself. It recalls David Foster Wallace’s career-length exploration of how corporate language is used to suppress human freedom and autonomy. Damon’s cult-like speech patterns, capped with a book recommendation, is given to create a dependency on a stilted, paranoid lifestyle.

The unintrusive camera and evidently minimal crew gives Claire Foy, who turned in one of television’s most compelling performances in The Crown, the opportunity to display similar virtuoso instincts here, a freedom to inhabit what is a fairly normal, obnoxious character that undergoes some pretty bad shit. In one scene Soderbergh has clearly just put his phone in the sink to film Foy from below, but the texture of the image and the small camera’s ability to inhabit unusual positions is recognisable to the kind of video that we watch every day online. A close up here resembles a Snapchat story. Soderbergh is very subtly using his tools to explore a visual language that we all possess.

The image quality does vary depending on the available light in each scene. This can be jarring, particularly when the cutting within the scene fails to keep a consistent atmosphere between shots. It reminds you that this is more of an experiment than a genuine effort at connecting with an audience. As ever, you can accuse Soderbergh of disinterest in amusing anyone but himself. But in his play, he does find simple ways to make scenes work for an audience. The camera tends to be placed in the corner of a room to allow the space to stretch around it, packing the frame with detail, allowing his staging within it to create the tension.

This is one of the scariest versions of the Insane Asylum Against Their Will genre, not because of any particular macabre happening (although the gore does rear its head towards the end of the film), but because the sanitised, corporate insurance systems that allow these characters to get imprisoned are so mundane as to feel utterly true. And when bursts of madness do come, such as a scene in which Foy is drugged and destroys the Asylum rec room, Soderbergh overlays a close up of her face with one of the back of her head, so the low-res image becomes as dizzying as the hum that accompanies it on the soundtrack. In moments like these, the particulars of how the crew is experimenting with technology recede and emotions take over. It makes you want more big name filmmakers to get a cast of great actors and just go play with a phone camera. Because even when the results aren’t working, they’re still pushing mainstream film into a new space.