Review: ‘Unseen’

Blumhouse's New Survival Thriller Puts Asian-American Women Into The Genre Spotlight

What do you get when you cross the sensory deprivation of Bird Box with the digital reliance of Missing? The result is Blumhouse’s new thriller, Unseen, which finds two women, complete strangers, relying on one another to get through a nightmarish situation. So along with the most obvious threats facing them, there’s also the danger that comes in putting your faith in others who may not have your best interests at heart, or are incapable of shouldering your burden.  This added layer of emotional turmoil is the guiding force for a solid edge-of-your-seat experience.

The story revolves around two women separated by hundreds of miles, yet tied together by on errant phone call. Sam (Jolene Purdy) is a depressed, possibly suicidal gas station clerk who, right before her shift, misdials a phone number and reaches Emily (Midori Francis), a Michigan doctor with severe vision impairment. Emily has been kidnapped by her ex, Charlie (Michael Patrick Lane), and taken to a remote cabin in the woods to be tortured and killed. How else is he to finally move on from her?  While Emily is able to escape his grasp, she’s lost in the middle of nowhere and without her much-needed glasses. Desperately, she begs Sam to be her eyes, using her dying cell phone to guide her through the thick fog of the forest and to safety, with Charlie constantly on her trail.

It’s a pretty nifty set-up, and debuting director Yoko Okumura wastes no time jumping right into it. This is a lean film for the most part, and doesn’t waste time brushing off potential plotholes to explain why Sam is Emily’s only hope for survival. It’s a smart move. Clocking in at just 76-minutes, the focus is less on extraneous details and more on the chase and the two women who find themselves inextricably linked.

About those two women, they are each in their feelings about different things that could hinder this desperate gambit. For obvious reasons, Emily suffers from trust issues. But as for Sam, she’s lost and without purpose, feeling as if she’s useless to anyone and everyone. What’s there left for her to fight for? How is she going to hold up with another person’s life in her hands? If she steers Emily in the wrong direction, she could be killed. And what would that do to Sam’s psyche? Sam also finds that she’s not out of danger herself. While Charlie is a constant threat of recapturing Emily, Sam faces a much closer concern by rich, angry, gun-toting customer Carol (Missi Pyle) who won’t get off her back. When her equally well-armed husband shows up, things spiral out of control.

While I liked that both Sam and Emily were under pressure, the stuff between Sam and Carol felt more like comedy and it didn’t completely fit with the movie’s grounded vibe. One of the things that makes Unseen work is that it doesn’t feel completely implausible. This is especially true in the quieter moments, when Sam and Emily are able to just talk one another through this insane situation. The film really is about these women bonding through this shared trauma.

Another aspect of Unseen that may go unnoticed but changes the tone of the film is that its leads and director are all Asian-American. Rarely do we see a genre film of this type led by Asian-American women, and it makes the bond between the characters feel all the more special.  Purdy and Francis establish really strong chemistry despite their characters never appearing in the same scene together.

Blumhouse has always been known for getting the most out of limited budgets, earning large profits on inexpensive projects. Unseen looks minimal even by previous Blumhouse standards, and while you can occasionally see where the limitations are, Okumura keeps things moving quickly while Purdy and Francis keep us engaged through to the end.

Unseen is available on digital and VOD now, followed by MGM+ release in May.

Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.