Seeing is believing for the two main characters in Unseen. Yoko Okumura’s debut film manages to deliver a sense of comfort in an otherwise discomforting situation. As the imperiled protagonists happen to find each other at the worst moments of their lives, the audience is drawn into their anxieties, their hopes, and, most of all, their survival.
Unseen may be viewed as a departure from Blumhouse’s typical horror offerings, but this engrossing thriller is also centered on some friends-in-adversity caught up in a life-threatening dilemma. Early on in the film, there is a real twist of fate when Jolene Purdy’s character Sam misdials and somehow ends up helping a far-flung and lost stranger on the run from a potential killer.
The victim, played by Midori Francis, nearly achieves every Final Girl’s ultimate goal. But, a stroke of misfortune causes Emily to break her glasses. The young doctor can barely see her own phone screen in front of her face, so finding a way out of a forest while escaping her gun-toting and vengeful ex-boyfriend (Michael Patrick Lane) is next to impossible. The visually impaired Emily does not remember anyone’s phone numbers off hand either, so if she wants to make it out of this ordeal alive, she needs her most recent caller, Sam, to be her eyes for the time being.
Things might appear safer on Sam’s side of this urgent long-distance call, but Purdy’s character is trapped in her own unique hell. All the way down in Florida, Sam works an unfulfilling job at a cheesy and run-down gas station. When not dealing with her loathsome boss, Sam is bending to the will of this film’s resident Karen, who is played to the hilt by Missi Pyle. Her character’s name is actually Carol, but this repulsive customer is without question an exaggeration of those dangerously entitled white folks encountered in real life.
Unseen benefits from leads who have proper chemistry with one another. It is impressive how Francis and Purdy achieve a rapport despite their characters not being in physical proximity for most of the film. Okumura’s ability to create an almost feature-length yet always engaging heart-to-heart between the protagonists is remarkable. Never does their conversation feel treacly; Sam and Emily talk like old friends, and they motivate one another to open up and act courageously without it coming across as forceful or contrived.
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This film toys with the concept of big coincidences by having two Asian American women, both of whom have complex relationships with their mothers, randomly coming together and helping each other overcome insurmountable problems. Okumura plays with color as well when creating the story’s two distinct settings; Emily is sentenced to the realistic, bleak, and blue wilderness, whereas Sam’s green environment is, much to her own surprise, a source of hope for Emily. These details are a little too on the nose, yet also easy to overlook.
Unseen is descended from past phone thrillers like Cellular and Phone Booth. Here the setup is even more risky and absurd, requiring the audience to take a leap of faith and trust Okumura in the same way that Emily trusts Sam. Surrendering control and the need for utmost logic will ensure the best viewing experience. Thrillers like this are certainly not uncommon, however Okumura’s talent for finding and maintaining the story’s emotional epicenter as chaos routinely erupts is what makes the film both effective and gratifying.
Yoko Okumura’s talent for finding and maintaining the story’s emotional epicenter as chaos routinely erupts is what makes ‘Unseen’ both effective and gratifying.