Steven Soderbergh’s foray into handheld high definition filmmaking has been a wonderful exercise for the veteran filmmaker who has managed to extract a grippingly sharp thriller out of three iPhone 7 Plus phones.
Handheld camera work has been around since the inception of cinema. From the clunky 35mm hand-cranked cameras during the days of the Lumière brothers to the 16mm Bolex ones used by cinéma vérité pioneers like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers, the handheld camera has been a cherished part of cinematic tradition for more than a century. As time has gone on and technology has evolved, the concept of the handheld has changed and improved over time. Whether it’s the addition of an optical sound track or the portability and affordability of the cameras, handheld cameras have become a much more ubiquitous aesthetic choice for filmmakers everywhere. And with the advent of high definition cameras that can fit inside one’s pocket, it seems that literally anyone can make a film if they so choose. That certainly seems to be the case for Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh.
Taking a page out of the millennial profilmic playbook, Steven Soderbergh has decided to make his next feature film exclusively using using 4K smartphone cameras. It is a bold feat, one that has kicked off Soderbergh’s return from early retirement with a digital bang. The director has seemingly found inspiration in the myriad of new films that are exploiting the cinematic possibilities of the new age of handheld cameras. Whether it’s Sean Baker’s excellent humanistic Tangerine or Jay Alvarez’s festival favorite I Play With the Phrase Each Other, a slew of new films have begun acting as technology demos for the cinematic potential that everyday smartphones carry. It seems that Soderbergh is set to roll up his filmmaking sleeves and show everyone just what he can do with the tools (or lack thereof) at his disposal in Unsane.
In what can only be described as an eerily unnerving exercise in making audiences squirm with unease, Unsane tells the story of a young, neurotic businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) who is unwittingly committed to a mental institution after she lets it slip that she has had suicidal ideations before in her life. As a result, the pseudo-mental health professionals lock her up on a 72 hour watch where (as you can expect) she inadvertently extends her stay at the institution thanks to her outbursts and nonconformist attitude. It’s a scam that is greed run amok and recovering addict and undercover journalist Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah) is set to blow the whole operation open. To make matters significantly worse, Valentini realizes that her creepy stalker ex-boyfriend David Strine (Joshua Leonard) has assumed a nightly position at the hospital where he now plays as a puppet master of Valentini and her freedom.
Soderbergh has chosen one hell of a subject to come out of retirement with, one that is as disturbing as it is gripping. And deciding to shoot using nothing more than three iPhone 7 Plus phones with three Moment lenses (18mm, 60mm and an ultra wide angle, also known as fisheye) was a risky move no doubt, but one that Soderbergh seamlessly masters. Soderbergh also managed to create a well-structured and aesthetically mature picture that will keep audience’s transfixed both narratively and profilmically. Expertly framed shots that would make one forget that this is a film shot on an iPhone, Unsane demonstrates why anyone with some filmmaking tenacity could go out and make their own film with relative ease. And while the lighting in some situations was decidedly poor, that is an inherent con to the pro of filming with equipment that “could fit in a backpack.” It seems that thanks to the unobtrusive nature of the equipment, the performances that Soderbergh was able to extract were earnest and thoughtful.
Foy does an excellent job of conveying the inherent frustration at her predicament, showcasing a bevy of manipulative emotions as a means of escaping from her wrongful sectioning, one that borders on illegal imprisonment. Her and Pharaoh’s acting keeps audiences on the edge of their seats while simultaneously forcing them to look away in disbelief at the utter disregard for human decency. It’s a hard watch at times, but one that is certainly worth any Soderbergh fan’s time.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Unsane has all but proven that Soderbergh is an expert in cinematic experimentation. From his first video-based breakout film Sex, Lies and Videotape to his more recent forays into digitally produced television via The Knick, Soderbergh has seemingly always been on the forefront of onscreen entertainment for decades. And with no signs of slowing down, Soderbergh has once again proven his innovative brilliance with Unsane. Whether it’s the growing unease at the protagonist’s descend into seeming madness or the continuously altering perspective of sanity, Unsane is yet another masterful turn by the award-winning director. Coupled with excellent performances from Foy and Pharoah, Soderbergh’s newest feature is perhaps one of the best psychological thrillers in some time. Thank goodness he has come out of retirement–and in style too.
Unsane hits theaters Friday, March 23.