Hey guys! So something I used to do was publish articles here that I also put in my high school newspaper, but being in college now, I typically dedicate most of my movie writing to the essays I do in classes (and the occasional post on here……). But I figured my essays could be a great way of keeping you all up to date on what I’m watching and writing while in film school.
So last semester I took a class entirely based around Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography. I watched, I think, 20-25 of his movies? And I was assigned to compare a 2018 thriller to Hitchcock’s work and style. So here goes!
Unsane’s Inane Ability to Remain Acclaimed
Celebrated film director Alfred Hitchcock is almost single handedly responsible for the genre of suspense thrillers that moviegoers know today. Without Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), modern classics such as Gone Girl (2014) and Get Out (2017) would have been made extremely differently and not had the prestigious influence of the iconic director. Films laden with suspense truly do remain prominent in Hollywood today thanks to the Master of Suspense. Just this past calendar year, critics have praised hit thrillers. Each of these hits can in some way be traced to Hitchcock, whether it be John Krasinski’s inspired sound design on A Quiet Place (2018), the damaged and violent protagonist in You Were Never Really Here (2018), or familial tension in A Simple Favor (2018). Perhaps the most shining example of Hitchcock’s influence on the suspense thriller in 2018 is Steven Soderbergh’s latest psychological picture Unsane (2018). The movie stars Claire Foy, Jay Pharaoh, June Temple, and Joshua Leonard and garnered much recognition for being shot entirely on an iPhone. Though this may seem like a gimmick, the overall quality of the film is there. Unsane follows Claire Foy’s character, Sawyer and her descent into madness. Sawyer is accidentally committed to a mental institution, but she soon finds that one the employees is the man that has been stalking her. In character-related beats of psychological uncertainty and Soderbergh’s stylistic choices of maddeningly isolation in setting and theme, Unsane uses Hitchcockian tropes to stand apart from other suspense thrillers and achieve a higher level of classical prestige. Over the course of Unsane’s ninety-eight minute runtime, the film continuously presents itself as a standout in a year already populated with many other thrillers that capture Hitchcock’s dark gracefulness.
Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane utilizes high concept, tense storyline and three-dimensionally unstable characters to perfectly reflect Hitchcock in his prime. The Master of Suspense dealt with the human psyche a number of times across his films, from the underrated Spellbound (1945) all the way to the iconic Psycho. Spellbound was actually set in a mental institution, examining the new warden’s first challenges, and Psycho deals directly with the rise of multiple-personality disorder. However, perhaps the most apt comparison to Unsane is Hitchcock’s Henry Fonda and Vera Miles vehicle, The Wrong Man (1956). Miraculously, both the main plot and B-story of The Wrong Man are reflective of Claire Foy’s character in Unsane, practically combining the two. The Wrong Man focuses on a man who is accused of a crime he did not commit and the hassle to prove his innocence. Sawyer is attempting to prove her innocence, but never explains her situation in a coherent or pleasant way, thus forcing her to stay locked up longer. Henry Fonda’s character in The Wrong Man, Manny (the eponymous “wrong man”), faces a similar issue, as he worries about the shame he will bring his family so he too cannot coherently explain himself when accused. These main storylines both intersect in the character trait of incoherence. Referring to the aforementioned B-story, Sawyer’s similarities to Manny’s wife, Rose (Vera Miles’s character), are quite abundant. Both women are victims of anguish and depression because of a man in their lives. Though Rose’s mental illness begins under false pretenses and Sawyer’s is entirely justified by her stalker, the two both spend time in mental hospitals confronting their issues to varying degrees. Similarly, Sawyer represents the fate of both Manny and Rose, as she gets out of the mental hospital like Rose, but she never forgets her experience and still seems to be scarred months later, like both Manny and his wife. These crossovers in character, plot, and conclusion lead to The Wrong Man and Unsane sharing deep suspense on different levels. Where Unsane feels like a ticking time bomb of victimization, The Wrong Man is a family drama dealing with shame on a larger scale. Though these two are wildly dissimilar stories with countless contrasting elements, their shared setups and elements prove that reused elements from the post-war era can still shape excellent films today.
Speaking further towards the Hitchcockian style of Unsane, the film’s director Steven Soderbergh uses countless directorial flourishes that are derived from the Master of Suspense and play towards enhancing the atmosphere of the filmic experience. Soderbergh frequently uses close-up shots of solely a character’s face to convey reactions, akin to how Hitchcock staged the mobile close-ups in Notorious (1946) and dedicated countless shots to capture characters’ personal horror in The Birds (1962). (Casper) Additionally, much like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1946), Unsane is mainly set in just one location: the mental institution. Doing this not only saved the production a great deal of money, but it also made the movie feel extremely claustrophobic and inescapable. This was likely intended to put audience members into the shoes of Sawyer as she encountered the horrors inside of the hospital. Audiences were similarly discomforted by spending their entire theater experience at a dinner party with two murderers during Rope. Speaking of which, much like Rope, Steven Soderbergh takes a play from Hitchcock’s book and includes a great deal of social commentary. While Hitchcock uses Rope to discuss the social problem of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, Soderbergh uses Unsane to discuss the greater quantity of mental illness in America and how the system can take advantage of patients far too easily. This was directly discussed during the police raid and news footage at the end of the 2018 film, showing that the mental hospital had in fact been forcing patients in against their wills. This raid sequence was also an excellent example of Hitchcock’s formal strategy known as chiasmus, in which the arrested H.R. rep for the hospital spent so much time keeping patients at the hospital, yet then the police then put her away her terrible misdeeds, presenting the ultimate irony. Over the entire course of Unsane, Steven Soderbergh constantly displays his respect to the techniques of Alfred Hitchcock in the decades before him. Soderbergh used close-up shots, a tight setting that moved forward the plot rather than acted as background (Casper), and included social commentary, all of which made Unsane a very Hitchcockian thriller in terms of style and directorial flair.
Though Unsane has not been the biggest box office earner of 2018, it does succeed in one of the most unique filmmaking aspects: paying homage to its predecessors without feeling as though it is a rip-off or rehash. Steven Soderbergh’s suspense thriller incorporated plot and character elements from The Wrong Man, yet combined those with the camera style of Notorious, the claustrophobic mood of Lifeboat, the social commentary of Rope, and setting of Spellbound. By optimizing all of these different ideas from Hitchcock’s filmography, Soderbergh created something familiar but compelling. Mixing these ingredients into a new delicious dish was daring, but paid off in the most delightful way. Steven Soderbergh won the Academy Award for Best Director, presented for his work on Traffic (2000). Yet, he has not gone after awards-caliber movies since that time because of his desire to make movies that he wishes to make. Alfred Hitchcock consistently made the types of movies that he wanted, very rarely “selling out” to producers or studios and usually being discontent when he had to do so. Hitchcock’s best work came from films where he seemed to enjoy the production and everything that went in to it, but especially ones where he could do something that he always wanted. In making films like Ocean’s 11 (2001) or Logan Lucky (2017) or 2018’s Unsane, Steven Soderbergh gets to enjoy this same luxury of making the films that he wants and enjoying his field even more for it. While doing so, Soderbergh, like Hitchcock, continues pushing the advancement of film forward in optimizing new formats like shooting a project entirely on an iPhone. Though he does not have nearly the longevity that Hitchcock did, Steven Soderbergh has exemplified passion on films like Unsane and he has used the same forward-thinking mindset as The Master of Suspense.
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