UNHINGED opens over a series of flashes. Cars crash, fists fly, and ordinary, everyday folks tussle, as commentators and newscasters and talking heads breathlessly intone about the stress and anger and seething, to-the-brink rage of modern life. These are real images, culled from news reports and viral videos, an apocalyptic patchwork of incivility, and they suggest a world pushed to the edge of violence. Who needs a Purge when you can just honk at a guy on the street?
If you think these opening credits seem to suggest that UNHINGED is going to be one of those thrillers that couches its B-movie thrills in a nest of savage grindhouse social commentary, then you — and those opening credits — are doing more heavy lifting than the movie does. Director Derrick Borte and screenwriter Carl Ellsworth might think they are making some grand statement about the ways the fissures in our societal composure are starting to reach a breaking point — a FALLING DOWN for the Trump era — but what they’ve really made is a scuzzy, low-down act of demolition-derby pulp nastiness. It’s intermittently “fun,” in a kicky, mean-spirited way, but the sparkplugs aren’t exactly sparking here.
Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is a young, newly-single mother who seems to be fashioning her own life of Job: it’s not her fault that her job-obsessed ex-husband wants to file a motion to get the house, but her perpetual tardiness and irresponsibility are the reason she’s been dropped by her top client and why her studious preteen son (Gabriel Bateman) keeps getting detention through no fault of his own. Given her run of piss-poor luck, it’s probably no shock that when she hits traffic on the way to drop her son off at school, she gets into a verbal kerfuffle with “The Man” (Russell Crowe), a sweaty and drawling paragon of toxic masculinity in a silver pick-up truck, who takes extreme, overcompensating displeasure in Rachel’s lack of manners on the horn.
It’s no shame to say that Crowe has become physically bigger since his heyday as a GLADIATOR, and he uses that newfound bulk to his advantage; as our nameless antagonist, he’s become an even more imposing bull of a man. In the film’s pre-credit sequence, we see him bash down the door of a suburban home with nothing but a hammer, murdering the people inside before setting the place on fire. Grunting and growling and watching lit matches dwindle to stubs, he turns his antagonist into a pure distillation of macho wrathful spite. Crowe, the modern-day answer to Oliver Reed, is in the greasy, gnarly schlock stage of his career, and he uses his image as a hothead to his advantage; he turns “the Man” into a cheerfully violent wrecking ball.
But that’s the only note Crowe gets to play. From the get-go, we know he’s a relentless force of simmering savage indignation, a film bred madman who surpasses psychopathy into being a straight up monster. Crowe relishes the chance to play a full-bore bad guy for the first time since at least VIRTUOSITY, and he attempts to find notes of humanity and righteous nihilism in his twitching-souled murderous marauder. But neither Borte nor Ellsworth know what to do with him. In UNHINGED he exists to do little more than make Rachel’s life a living hell, stealing her phone and using her contacts list to stalk and murder those around her. He’s a hulking unmasked Michael Myers by way of a Jordan Peterson podcast.
A critic could stretch and twist and contort themselves in an effort to find some subtextual meat to UNHINGED’s brand of crunching metal vehicular carnage. There’s something to be gleaned here about the way belligerent, entitled men take out their fury on innocent women, or you could look at UNHINGED as a treatise on the visceral divisions, resentments and misunderstandings that splinter our society. Certainly that opening credits pastiche seems to suggest an attempt at, if not something thoughtful, then something with at least a little bit of bite. “The Man” belligerently bemoans his own divorce, and he uses that as (literally) bludgeoning guiding force. But the reality is that the film is actually a one-note psycho slashathon. It’s a film that’s as single-minded in its cruelty as its villain; it exists solely to put Rachel through the ringer, a dim-bulb cousin of road thrillers like THE HITCHER, DUEL, and JOY RIDE.
UNHINGED was shot in New Orleans, but makes no use of the city’s atmosphere; it takes place solely in the anonymous suburbs and concrete highways and industrial realms surrounding the Big Easy. It’s an unrelentingly grey film, with the endless stretches of road and overcast skies dominating the look of the film, and the monotonous violence of Crowe’s rampage. That’s not to say that UNHINGED isn’t watchable; in it’s cruddy, hell-bent-for-leather B-movie way, it’s a perfectly arresting act of drive-in inanity. Borte has, at least, an ability to stage cheapjack car chases and crunching roadside chaos with a degree of junk-cinema verve, and in its way, UNHINGED is a perfectly competent work of empty-headed suspense. But it’s also, at times, redundant in the way it sics Crowe on it’s poor, beleaguered heroine. UNHINGED feints at topicality, but doesn’t actually have anything to say. Contrary to what its inane and misguided Twitter publicity says, there’s no real reason to kill yourself to see this in a hardtop theater, but as a drive-in feature (which is how this writer saw it) it scratches a bit of an itch as a work of disposable neo-trash cinema.