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Movie Review: 'Unsane'

The increasing quality of the cameras on devices like the iPhone has made it so that pretty much anyone can make a real, feature-length movie at a cost nearing zero dollars. Still, with a couple of notable exceptions, movies shot on iPhones have been seen by almost no one, and we certainly haven’t seen the big kids in Hollywood jump on board.

But now, cinema’s great experimenter, Steven Soderbergh, has changed that with Unsane, a thriller shot entirely on an iPhone. And this is a big deal, because Soderbergh is a big-name director, equally at home in the glamour of Ocean’s Eleven as he is in the natural lighting and DIY aesthetic of Unsane.

The movie stars Claire Foy as a woman who’s accidentally committed to a mental institution, at which point she, of course, tries to convince anyone and everyone that she’s there by mistake. Maybe not surprisingly, as the story unfolds, it’s not clear that it actually was a mistake, nor do we know how sane Foy’s character really is. But then the truth is revealed, and Unsane goes in a direction I didn’t anticipate, and becomes a genuine horror movie--one that’s both nightmarish and reflective of the real-life terror of PTSD.

And all of this is actually enhanced by the fact that it was shot on an iPhone. Soderbergh turns the quirks of the tiny camera into real advantages, heightening our claustrophobia by fitting it into small spaces, and allowing the natural distortion of the camera’s lens to make every scene deeply unsettling.

As far as it all goes, this movie isn’t going to set off a filmmaking revolution. The abilities of the iPhone camera are just too specific to work in many different cases. But with Unsane, Steven Soderbergh has delivered a highly competent thriller, and one that plays so well to the strengths of its technology that it’s almost hard to imagine it existing in any other way.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.