I was initially reluctant to watch this movie. Mental illness has been an issue in my family, including forced incarceration in a mental institution. Nevertheless, I did get it because, duh, Claire Foy for only two dollars. Then I read the blurb on the back and realized she was playing American without her lovely Mancunian accent and regretted those two dollars a bit. It sat on my shelf for quite a while, but I’m glad I finally did pop it into the player because it’s not a bad film.
Bleeker Street produced this thriller, directed by Steven Soderbergh who has long been known for experimenting with unconventional film and camera formats. For Unseen that would mean shooting the film completely on an iPhone 7 Plus. Even with several big name actors, like Claire Foy, Matt Damon and Amy Irving, only $1.5 million covered the bills, with a reward of $14 million gross. Thrillers without massive car chases tend to be cheaper, and most of the location shooting was indoors at some kind of medical facility.
There are several noticeable cinematic nods, like the Misery moment near the end. The “secret” shoot took only 10 days, much like the Altman movie Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was done in only 19. I remember being really surprised to learn that when I first saw it, years ago because it’s also a good film with a large number of big names.
Right off the bat Soderbergh tries to sell “creepy” with a blue forest scene (very Blair Witch) and a POV of a creepy guy explaining that “you did this me” followed by harsh piano strains under stalkerish images of office worker Sawyer Valantini walking to work. Her POV is matter of factly listing all the ways a woman learns to disappear when they’ve been targeted by a stalker. I think for most people, Sawyer’s swiftly degenerating story will feel very creepy and very uncomfortable despite the director overselling it.
Sawyer’s story is unfortunately not unusual. She can’t go anywhere without getting hit on, because she’s pretty and small, making her an easy target of what the men think is a casual “pleasant” interaction but which is actually a scary and harsh contact, especially when it’s her boss blatantly propositioning her. Still, her reaction to a man she picks up in a bar seems over the top when she gets him home. As well, when she goes to a councilor to discuss her feelings, she does admit to having had suicidal thoughts. At this point in the movie, the jury is still out as to just how crazy Sawyer is. Sure, she signs “boilerplate” paperwork that turns out to be a voluntary self-commitment to a mental health hospital. She follows all of the workers’ directions, even after they take her purse and make her strip off her clothes. In this One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest moment the audience is still unsure. Is she crazy to resist this? Or is she just crazy?
Sawyer is either horribly naïve, or has led a privileged life that makes her unable to grasp what’s going on till too late, or she’s just really, really gullible, but I couldn’t stop wondering why she wasn’t resisting more strongly, or why when she finally did begin to resist, she did it so poorly. I didn’t understand her reactions to what was going on, through is no fault of Foy’s. Every actor did a great job with what they were given, I thought, especially her. The biggest weakness in the film was the writing, which was no better than okay, with plot and nuances stolen from better films and the above mentioned confusing reactions to events.
The phone as camera gives the film an odd feel in a few ways. The focus is very deep, much more like real life than that of a normal camera, but the light and color are both flat. It looks like there was some color overlay used after the opening deep blue forest, but even when it’s not and the action is taking place in a very colorful room, the flat look persists. I liked the sort of meta joke of Sawyer facetiming her mom while being filmed by an iPhone. What can I say, it was a very small funny moment in an otherwise not very funny film.
I wasn’t crazy about the film, so to speak, on first viewing, but after it marinated overnight I decided that it might be worth a rewatch some time, especially to appreciate the actors’ work. The writing gets some things right, like making you guess at the top of the movie whether or not Sawyer is crazy, and portraying the harsh feelings engendered from being stalked, but it’s definitely the weakest part of the movie. A couple of years ago simply being shot on a phone marked the movie as interesting but those days are over, so if you decide to see this, and I recommend you do, watch it for its merits as a film and not as an oddity.
Unsane Trailer #1 | Movieclips Trailers