Unseen (now on Amazon Prime Video) is one of those movies where the premise probably deserves top billing. This thriller from Blumhouse Productions and first-time director Yoko Okumura lives and dies by a single, tenuous cell phone connection, which exists in a perfect-storm plot where one thing goes wrong and impacts everything that follows. Midori Francis and Jolene Purdy exist on either side of that connection, injecting the premise with enough emotion and character detail to hold it together. In theory, anyway – let’s find out if they succeed.
UNSEEN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Somewhere in the bullets-and-insanity belt of Florida exists Sam (Purdy). She works in a convenience mart covered with grinning-gator logos and run by a drawling, mulleted hick who stares her in the eye and says, “You smell like failure.” A leaky slushie machine sits in the corner, occasionally belching. Somewhere in Michigan exists Emily (Francis). She’s in trouble: She wakes up in a dim-lit cabin, her hands and feet bound. It seems her ex, Charlie (Michael Patrick Lane), is none too happy that she dumped him, “right after my father kicked me off the board!” he whines. I mean, can you blame him for kidnapping and psychologically torturing her? She left him when he was so very vulnerable and traumatized! And it surely had nothing to do with him being an abusive and entitled cretin?
Anyway, those are the characters. Now, the premise: Before punching in for her shift, Sam dials her phone and it’s a wrong number and she hangs up. (Who was she trying to call? NYET SPOILERSZK!) She parks behind the counter and girds herself to deal with the usual influx of irritating customers, including a woman (Missi Pyle) who’s such a Karen, she almost certainly has Mechakaren, Spacekaren and Shin Karen versions of her. Meanwhile, Emily manages to clobber Charlie with a vase, cut the ziptie on her feet and escape to the woods. Her glasses are broken, so everything’s a blur, and my armchair assessment is, she’s legally blind, or close to it – she pretty much has to be in order for the premise to function, anyway. She somehow mashes her phone until it dials 911 and they say it’ll take an hour to track her phone then she drops her phone and the screen cracks and the only number that works is the wrong number she got a while back. Yep. It’s all coming together now.
But that’s not all! There’s more premise here: Since Emily can’t see worth a damn, she needs Sam to video call her and be her eyes and guide her through the woods, avoiding Charlie and his big ol’ shotgun. It takes some convincing but Sam reluctantly agrees, and before you know it, they’re sharing their feelings in between Sam’s bouts with Kaiju Karen – who, just like any good caricature of a White Florida woman, can’t just walk around unarmed – and the slushie machine, and Emily’s harrowing attempts to survive. Will we suspend our disbelief long enough to see this premise through, or will we just sit here and poke holes in it? (Hint: We can do both!)
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Unseen is essentially Clerks crossed with One Missed Call crossed with Wait Until Dark.
Performance Worth Watching: There are basically four performances of note here, two OTT cartoonz and two relatively earnest characterizations. Let’s highlight the earnest ones: Francis and Purdy shoulder every ounce of the emotional weight here, and successfully inspire concern for their well-being.
Memorable Dialogue: This one is funnier out of context: “Eat ALL the Williams Sonoma cheese you want!”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: There’s a somewhat clever subtextual irony at play in Unseen, where circumstances in Sam’s life apparently make her not feel “seen” by those around her (there’s evidence that she’s dealing with serious depression), until she encounters Emily, who can’t literally see very well – and the premise dictates that Sam function as Emily’s eyes. Maybe I’m close to pulling a brain muscle with that interpretive stretch, but there’s just enough substance to these characters to see them as more than just stock players in a thriller with a mildly tortured concept. As they say, it’s not nothing.
One superlative begs to be added to that descriptive though – a fragile, mildly tortured concept. There are times when it makes swiss cheese look like a block of granite. A double-wide aircraft carrier could navigate some of these plot holes without scraping the sides. There’s also a vast dichotomy between character types here, with the abusive ex, redneck quickie-mart manager and Ghidorah the Three-Headed Karen seemingly lifted from an old Dudley Do-Right cartoon (they’re all easy-target White privilege caricatures, which are fine when they’re a little less witless than they are here) and threatening to undermine the sincerity and seriousness of the abused female protagonists.
Yet Okumura holds together these disparate elements reasonably well, smoothing over some of the rough tonal edges, using split screens to build tension to a near-comical fever-pitch climax and keeping the run time drum-tight at 76 minutes. She commits more effort to this screenplay – a little bit hacky, a little more predictable, but not thoughtless, and with a flawed, but somewhat inventive premise – than it likely deserves. In another filmmaker’s hands, Unseen might have been just a job, but Okumura directs with enough craft and intent to make a low-budget Blumhouse project a little more than just another forgettable thriller.
Our Call: Unseen is far from perfect, but it’s taut and tense and exceeds expectations for miniscule-budget Blumhouse made-for-TV fodder. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.