A knife, a lighter and a coffee cup are only a few of the objects Russell Crowe uses to exact bloody vengeance in Derrick Borte’s “Unhinged,” a trivially straightforward (and, at 90 minutes, appropriately brief) new thriller that must be the most expensive anti-road rage PSA ever produced.
But make no mistake: While Crowe is the star here, he’s by no means the hero. When he glowers behind the steering wheel of a pickup truck shot to look like an intimidating Cerberus of rubber and metal, it isn’t with the lawful-good virtue of Maximus or Robin Longstride or Jor-El. It’s with the chaotic evil of unbridled macho malice pushed over the edge. The actor becomes the rotten core of 2020 personified.
Crowe certainly conjures up the menace that’s needed for the role, too, even if the irony of him playing so clearly against type awkwardly overshadows his character’s threats on occasion. Disdain for his fellow man rolls off his skin in beads of sweat as he lumbers around in an oversized wardrobe like he forgot to remove the prosthetics that transformed him into Roger Ailes before leaving the set of “The Loudest Voice.” If the T-800 is a slow-moving, controlled bulldozer of destruction, Crowe – credited here only as “The Man,” an indication of the film’s apparent themes and its shallow interpretations of them – is an unmanned jackhammer, weaving every which way in pursuit of carnage and, oh, God help anyone who gets in his immediate vicinity. The point when a cop eventually does get close in an attempt to stop him is also around the point that “Unhinged” becomes a bit cartoonish for its own good; “the man” manages to escape through a window after being shot, a wounded tortoise somehow eluding a gun-wielding hare.
The target of his ire is Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a young single mother already contending with a buffet of life’s cruelties. She’s figuring out how best to help her sick mom, dealing with the sudden loss of her “best client” (Rachel’s exact occupation is unclear) and, oh yes, of course taking the freeway to drop her child, sweet-natured Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), off at school was a bad idea.
Her day can still get worse. In what might be the new standard for wrong place, wrong time, Rachel directs her frustrations at the driver of the pick-up truck ahead of her (we already know exactly who’s inside) that sits idly while the light turns green by laying on her horn. The truck rolls up alongside her down the road, with Crowe’s bearded beast demanding an apology. Rachel instead offers up a verbal flip of her middle finger. There’s that trademark Crowe glower. Oh yes: Rachel’s day is about to get a lot worse, and “the man” is about to lose whatever control he had left—to the tune of several demolished cars, a few unfortunate victims and a fast-moving chase movie that can’t quite figure out if it’s primarily a psychological thriller about unchecked hyperviolent masculinity or something less cerebral/more gloriously visceral.
Borte has the right instincts for which cuts and camera angles will fray our nerves as Rachel is stalked via car, foot and GPS by the human homing missile on her tail, and I certainly winced when “the man” – something between Patrick Stewart’s calculated neo-Nazi in “Green Room” and Crowe’s own feral take on Mr. Hyde – makes a meat pie out of an unfortunate soul at a diner in broad daylight. As far as solitary harbinger-of-death movies go, “Unhinged” lives up to its title, and does so without ever making the mistake that it's a full-blown horror movie.
But the screenplay from Carl Ellsworth, who last penned 2012’s forgettable “Red Dawn” remake, is mired in a bit of an identity crisis. Marinated in sociopolitical undercurrents suggesting widespread aggravation (a characteristic of this slightly alternate reality that at least partially mirrors 2020, sans mask-wearing debate), the film is itching to produce some insight about how we treat those around us in the worst of times. These attempts, however, are half-baked at best—there isn’t much space for subtlety to sneak in when knives are plunged into the backs of necks. And though Crowe successfully recalibrates his trademark world-weariness for a villainous role in “Unhinged,” the actor is hardly asking us to do anything other than break out in a cold sweat whenever he’s in the frame, and – more acutely – whenever he’s lurking just outside it. No, if there’s any interpersonal connection I was really invested in, it’s the believably sweet bond between Rachel and her son.
Meanwhile, scenes of mayhem are a dime a destructive dozen in “Unhinged,” but moments of legitimate suspense are few; a cold opening sequence of particularly gruesome design ensures there will be no speculating as to what Crowe’s anti-avenger is capable of. You may be left distracted by how much more intriguing the proceedings could've been if “Unhinged” slowly peeled back the layers of this deranged maniac, instead of ripping the cover off all at once. Is it a lack of faith that Crowe could have pulled off the uncharacteristic turn, or a lack of faith by Ellsworth in his own narrative?
I’ll give some credit to the movie for never feeling like an experiment in pure miserabilism, as well as the moments when it briefly and enticingly morphs into a black-hearted satire (a seemingly unintentional one) about how much information we surrender to our phones. A key play by “the man” involves swiping Rachel’s, and while there’s some plot convenience at play in regards to how he accesses it, his scrolling through dozens of contacts and photos might lead you to ensure your own iPhone’s two-step verification is set up.
The movie’s attempts at grander commentary, however, tend to fall flat, lest we restrain ourselves from the cynical thrills “Unhinged” offers in spurts—in this extraordinarily uncertain moment in American history, we need something a bit sharper to pierce our hide. “Are you feeling stressed out these days? Join the club,” an off-screen presence suggests early on. No need; we joined months ago.
"Unhinged" is rated R for strong violent content, and language throughout. It opens in limited theatrical release on Friday.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Jimmi Simpson, Gabriel Bateman
Directed by Derrick Borte
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