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I initially toyed with the idea of writing about Derrick Borte’s road rage thriller Unhinged without acknowledging the culture that it’s emerging into. Like a Rip Van Winkle emerging from a hungover stupor after a mystical game of ninepins into post-Revolutionary War America, it’s almost impossible to fault it for not necessarily being up to the massive moment it has been asked to rise up to. It was, initially, an August cheapie, meant to draw in bored audiences already sated by the blockbuster likes of Minions: The Rise of Gru, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Morbius, to name a few, but now it’s a proverbial Red Wheelbarrow, which the whole of a multi-billion dollar industry depends upon. Certainly, no one on the creative side of things ever assumed that their film would be The Film That Would Bring The Masses Back To The Movies, and it’s very clearly unfair to evaluate it as such.
But when the most palpable fear you’ll feel comes not from the events on screen but someone’s cough a good 50 feet away from you in a sanitized concessions-free theater that makes you wonder if the two cloth masks you’re wearing (given that the Target you went to pre-screening didn’t seem to have any filters for them readily available) are going to be what stands between you and extended illness, well, it’s hard not to think about. Unhinged isn’t really bad, per se — hamstrung slightly by a limited budget and an over-reliance on bad special effects, it’s still a moderately effective and bleakly funny thriller with a full-on Nicolas Cage-style Russell Crowe performance at its core — but it’s not going to change anyone’s mind on whether or not the risk is worth it, no matter the moment’s contradictoryadvice du jour from experts interviewed by big-ticket outlets in search of an explanation to a question that their editors already know the answers to. It is essentially a launch title, and for anyone who also enjoys playing video games in their spare time, you know that it takes something truly memorable to draw people in (Super Mario 64 this ain’t).
Unhinged begins in a particularly unwise fashion: We’re introduced to Tom Cooper (Crowe), an angry man in a pick-up truck waiting outside a darkened home in the middle of the night, gathering some amount of chemical courage from a few Oxys stored in a pill container in his cup holder. A few moments later, he finally snaps, heads indoors, bludgeons the couple within to death with a hammer, and burns the place down. We’re never given any explanation for this action, nor is it ever really referred to in the film again (though I will add the caveat that Unhinged moves at such a clip that it would be relatively hard to notice if it was unless you’ve seen the film before), but it also dilutes the effectiveness of his first encounter with Rachel (Caren Pistorius) in rush hour traffic the next day. We already know that he’s mad, bad, and lethal to know, and Borte’s decision to go against the grain of road rage tradition — like, say, in Steven Spielberg’s Duel, still the gold standard for most of these thrillers — ruins the moment almost entirely and helps to rob the film’s second act of any real tension. We already know what Tom’s capable of, and of course, he’s going to lash out violently against all perceived offenders.
Rachel’s introduction is, perhaps, where the film should have begun. A stressed single-mother and fledgling hairdresser, she, understandably, snaps a bit when a giant pick-up truck refuses to move at a green light while she’s trying to drop her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) off at school before heading off to a big gig. But she’s soon stuck in traffic next to the truck, and that’s when she meets Tom. He rolls down his window and begins demanding an apology from her, to which she rightfully refuses to give him. He then decides to show her what a bad day truly looks like, and proceeds to terrorize her on the road, nearly running her car off the road and aggressively accelerating in front of her — you know, the normal road rage playbook, from which Unhinged‘s title sequence offers a number of real-world videos of car crashes and accidents almost as if to cite how Tom’s behavior really isn’t all that far-fetched (though, if you’re a sicko like me and regularly watch Road Rage YouTube compilations to fully immerse yourself in the American subconsciousness, you’re likely well-versed in all the ways one can cause chaos on the roadways) — and proceeds to slowly escalate his actions throughout the day in a series of increasingly gory and goofy actions.
I’m firmly a fan of the Dad-Bod era of Russell Crowe’s filmography, even if it isn’t necessarily as “good” as, say, his pre-stardom genre work or his megawattage turns in things like Gladiator, and this performance is a hoot and a half, made slightly better by the fact that the actor himself can’t even totally keep up with all of the wild half-digested scenery shit that he’s throwing at the screen. His now-polished southern drawl, a hold-over from his turn in Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, disappears occasionally from Tom’s cadence, only to reappear at a striking moment to remind you that, yes, this was a choice that was made. He’s a giant here, towering over each and every character, dwarfing them as if he was Jason Voorhees, and I hope more filmmakers use Crowe like this in the future: He’s a presence worth using in more ways than he is now.
But Unhinged isn’t quite good enough to match it. Crowe’s really the only actor to make an impression — I spent three-quarters of the film marveling at the fact that, when the angle is perfect and the light hits Pistorius just right, she really looks like Winona Ryder, rather than anything she was doing — and the film somehow manages to squander Jimmi Simpson, who is a fantastic and talented actor in his own right. the action, especially in the most pivotal moments of the film, is often incomprehensible and otherwise lacking (the big final showdown between Rachel and Tom is very nearly unintelligible, almost reminiscent of the worst of the thriller genre in the Mid-Aughts), and the plotting, in a desperate attempt to seem clever and relevant, hinges upon a fucking extended Fortnite reference. You’ve got to wonder whether or not Apple will even allow this movie to be available on the iTunes Store, given that they’re taking down anything related to Epic Games these days. But it’s not nearly bad enough to bore, and it’s always somewhat compelling just so one can see where it goes next, even if it never really lives up to the promise that it sets up for itself.
So should you go see Unhinged? Honestly, my advice, pandemic or no pandemic, would have been for you to stay at home and just wait until it hit VOD so that you could enjoy it with whatever mind-altering substances of your own personal preference. Anything beyond the quality of the movie is above my pay grade, and you, personally, have to evaluate your own level of comfort and/or risk in going out in to the world to do things. Writing about art is, say, fundamentally different from reviewing cars or something else, but in a time like this I find that it’s the proper justification in continuing to write about film: The writer is only able to evaluate the car itself — its interior, its handling, its safety measures — and cannot account for what will happen on the road or what might happen to a faulty gear-shift in your specific model years down the line in writing about it before it has even hit the streets around you. Their endorsement really is meant to speak to those who are willing to buy said car, take it out on the road, and engage with the risk that they very well may die at any given time on the road no matter the precautions they’ve taken.
As Unhinged goes out of its way to prove, sometimes sheer random encounters will push you on the road to ruin, and all you can do is control what you yourself do in those moments.