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The current cinema’s most restless innovator is at it again, five years after his thankfully aborted “retirement” from the motion picture game, Steven Soderbergh brought an iPhone 7 Plus to a recently shuttered hospital in upstate New York and came back 10 days later with “Unsane.” A deliciously nasty little thriller with a ragged, low-budget edge, the film feels like a kicky, throat-clearing exercise by a guy who just wanted to see if he could go make a whole movie on his phone. It’s also really scary.
As close to a one-man-band as you can get in contemporary commercial moviemaking, Soderbergh pseudonymously acts as his own cinematographer and camera operator while also editing his films himself under his mother’s name. In light of all that, the crazy idea of shooting on a cell phone actually seems like a natural progression of the director’s ongoing attempts to pare down the process.
Of course, some readers might remember that “The Florida Project” director Sean Baker already beat him to this particular punch with 2015’s “Tangerine,” which was photographed with an iPhone 5 but used anamorphic lens adapters and extensive color-correction to create a vivid, shimmery sheen that often passed for the work of a much larger camera. “Unsane” looks like it was shot on a phone. Soderbergh leans into the format’s limitations, using a boxy aspect ratio, wide-angle distortions and a smeary color palate for a creepy immediacy that feels invasive toward our hunted heroine.
The marvelously named Sawyer Valentini (played here in a gutsy, star-making performance by Claire Foy of Netflix’s “The Crown”) has recently fled from Boston to Pennsylvania in order to escape the unwanted attentions of a psycho stalker. At a new job in an unfamiliar city with no friends, our brittle heroine is still rattled by PTSD from the experience and makes the mistake of checking out a victims’ support group at a local, for-profit mental health center.
Sawyer is quickly conned into signing the wrong paperwork and voluntarily committing herself to a 24-hour observation period. The most fiendish facet of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay is that the more she tries to argue her way out of the institution, the crazier she comes off. Soderbergh is famously a Franz Kafka fan, as evidenced once again here in the studiously banal, bureaucratic logic that keeps extending Sawyer’s stay. You’ll want to rip your hair out just watching it, but then you’d look nuts.
A friendly fellow patient played with great warmth and humor by former “Saturday Night Live” scene-stealer Jay Pharoah eventually clues her in to what’s going on. It’s all a scam by which the hospital has been tricking people into committing themselves and then finds excuses to keep them around for as long as their insurance companies will cover. So if Sawyer can just stick it out for seven days she’ll get bounced once the bills stop getting paid. This seems at least somewhat manageable, except the hospital’s new orderly looks an awful lot like her old Boston stalker.
If you try and pick at the plausibility of “Unsane” it all unravels pretty quickly, especially with regard to the seemingly supernatural foresight of Sawyer’s stalker (a terrifying Joshua Leonard from “The Blair Witch Project,” returning 20 years later to scare the bejesus out of us in the woods again). Luckily, the movie moves with enough run-and-gun energy to keep us rattled for most of its running time.
Soderbergh shoots the scare sequences like an old master playing with a new toy, nestling up uncomfortably close to his star with the unfiltered image quality peering into her every pore. He’s got his tiny camera looming above her shoulder or directly under her face. He employs night-vision photography and even stages some shots surveillance-drone style, so it often feels like the movie itself is stalking her.
Foy’s performance is fascinating because — perhaps sensing that the situation is already sympathetic enough — she’s really not afraid to push at the outer edges of the character’s unlikability. As opposed to other horror movie damsels in distress, Sawyer is a bit of a bitch. She’s brusque, has a nasty sense of humor and verbally batters the crap out of her assailant with a vicious, late-movie monologue at which I damn near applauded.
Yet Soderbergh’s pushy, insistent camerawork is always making us aware of just how worryingly vulnerable she is. An early scene at the office when Sawyer’s new boss hits on her is an icky mini-masterpiece of insinuation, with the iPhone camera’s unnerving, overly crisp focus eroding the usual boundaries between performers.
Would I like to see every movie from now on shot this way? Absolutely not. For starters it’s kind of gross-looking and thus perhaps only suited for paranoid little genre exercises like this one. But it is quite heartening to see that a cell phone camera turns out to be a viable addition to a master craftsman’s toolbox. It’s also a bit humbling, as I only ever use my iPhone to get into dumb arguments with strangers on Twitter.
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