Steven Soderbergh shot his new psychological thriller Unsane (which is now playing in general release) on an iPhone 7 Plus and in the unusual aspect ratio of 1.56:1. Slightly wider than the classic Academy ratio (which is 1.33:1) but noticeably narrower than the formats in which most modern movies are shot, this aspect ratio heightens the film’s sense of claustrophobia as much as the iPhone imagery heightens its sense of disorientation. Soderbergh uses the consumer-grade technology to achieve peculiar effects with depth—you can’t quite discern in the flat images the distances between people and objects—and this provides a clever visual analog to the drama, in which the heroine (Claire Foy) is never sure of whom she can trust. The technology also allows the director to execute plenty of his trademark fly-on-the-wall shots, shooting in tight corners of rooms and from extreme low angles. The formal playfulness may occasionally undermine Unsane’s narrative tension, but it keeps the movie engaging on a visual level.
The opening scenes of Unsane introduce us to Foy’s Sawyer Valentini, a young woman who’s recently moved to an unidentified east coast city. Working for a bank, Sawyer takes a thorough, no-nonsense approach to her job, garnering the praise of her boss. Soderbergh presents an encounter between Sawyer and her superior a few minutes into the film, and the voyeuristic aesthetic conjures an air of unease even before the boss makes an unwelcome pass at Sawyer. She politely turns him down, but has to reiterate her refusal a few times; watching the scene, you’re unsure as to how far the boss will go in his pursuit, and this establishes a nervous sympathy for the heroine that will intensify as the movie continues. The conflict also introduces one of Unsane’s principal themes: men’s efforts to take power over women.
It turns out that Sawyer moved away from her hometown of Boston to avoid the man who’s been stalking her for two years. Soderbergh and his screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer hint at this revelation through Sawyer’s closed-off behavior and her discomfort around other people, but they don’t disclose this part of her history until after she embarks on a one-night-stand that goes disastrously wrong. After meeting a man through a dating app, Sawyer gets drinks with him at a bar then takes him back to her apartment. When they arrive, though, Sawyer flips out and locks herself in the bathroom until the strange man leaves. Cut to the next day, when Sawyer seeks help online for victims of stalking. Apparently Sawyer continues to see her stalker in the faces of strangers, causing her to lash out at them.
She explains all this to a sympathetic psychologist at a mental health facility she finds online; the doctor listens calmly and recommends further therapy sessions. But after Sawyer agrees to the plan, something strange happens. Orderlies inform her that she’s agreed to inpatient treatment at the facility, then promptly take her belongings and clothes. Soderbergh achieves an eerie, Kafkaesque vibe during this passage, presenting Sawyer as she loses her autonomy and finds herself at the mercy of the clinic’s unspecified rules. (One might recall that Soderbergh’s second film featured Franz Kafka as a protagonist.) In very little time Sawyer is confined to a ward with other mental patients and forced to take psychotropic medication. She tries to explain that she doesn’t belong at the facility, but no one takes her seriously—even the local police, whom she calls in an attempt to be rescued. (The next few paragraphs discuss significant plot twists; if you haven’t seen Unsane, you may want to stop reading here.)
The filmmakers raise the possibility that Sawyer really needs psychiatric help when she claims that an orderly at the clinic (Joshua Leonard) is the same man who had been stalking her in Boston. This claim makes her seem crazy, so do her violent outbursts against the orderlies and other patients. Unsane generates some decent suspense from the question of Sawyer’s sanity (in fact the film’s tagline is “Is she or isn’t she?”), but the film has other things in mind than delivering a straightforward mystery. In a wildly implausible twist, the orderly and the stalker turn out to be the same person; in flashbacks Soderbergh reveals that he met Sawyer when she provided home health care to his late father in his final years. Believing Sawyer to be his soul mate, he began stalking her, eventually following her to the mental health facility in Pennsylvania.
Sawyer confronts her stalker, David, in the movie’s climax, which makes the most of the narrow frame. Set in a solitary confinement cell, the scene has Sawyer verbally assaulting her stalker, digging into his insecurities and obsessions. The heroine gains the upper hand over the man who had disrupted her life, and the transformation is particularly thrilling for taking place in such close quarters. Soderbergh’s staging of the scene renders the power play personal and intimate; moreover, it makes viewers look inward and consider whether they relate to the obsessions and resentments depicted onscreen. It’s as though the preceding hour or so of Unsane was simply setting the stage for this moment, which is as uncomfortable as anything Soderbergh’s shot. The scene also proves extremely timely, reflecting our culture’s current reassessment of the power dynamics between men and women. Unsane is being sold as a genre entertainment, but it’s ultimately as serious as the director’s The Girlfriend Experience in its open-ended consideration of gender politics and the zeitgeist.