Unhinged, 2020, 1 ½ stars

Road-rage redux

Unhinged is nothing to Crowe about

Image copyright Solstice Studios

Exclusive to MeierMovies, August 22, 2020

You’d think the first big studio release in months would offer escapism. Instead, Unhinged – a brutal thriller about road rage – throws us headlong into a world we’re all too familiar with recently: one filled with violence, uncertainty and anxiety.

But that’s not necessarily the fault of director Derrick Borte (The Joneses) or writer Carl Ellsworth. It’s simply the circumstances they were dealt. What is their fault is the film’s failure to produce enough intelligent suspense and originality. Instead, the movie mistakes inhumanity, anger and car chases (albeit good ones) for tension, and wastes most of the talents of its two leads, Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius (Gloria Bell).

Crowe plays Tom Cooper, a man past the brink of a breakdown. With professional and family failings mounting, he’s one step away from a rampage.

“I’ve been chewed up, used up and spat out,” he rants. “I’ll make my contribution this way: through violence and retribution, ‘cause that’s all I’ve got left.”

We’ve all got a little Tom in us, and the film taps into that. Though it never references the COVID-19 pandemic or George Floyd protests specifically, Unhinged is, unfortunately, very much of its time.

“People have so much coming at them,” a newscaster tells us over the opening credits, “their brains just can’t handle it.”

Rachel (Pistorius) is having a tough time too. Experiencing a messy divorce and job insecurity while supporting her son (Gabriel Bateman) and younger brother (Austin McKenzie), she is a tamer, more legal, less psychotic version of Tom. But she too is filled with anger. And when the two exchange unpleasantries while driving, escalation seems inevitable.

Sometimes a movie is better understood by watching a different movie. In this case, that film is Duel. Indeed, it’s almost as if Borte and Ellsworth decided to flip the script on every major element of the 1971 Steven Spielberg road-rage film. Instead of making the antagonist an unknown, faceless predator, Unhinged fully reveals its villain and everything he’s capable of in the opening scene, robbing the movie of its mystery. Instead of a menacing 1955 Peterbilt Needle Nose, we get a rather pedestrian Ford pick-up. Instead of a phone-less, rural landscape populated by tumble weeds and isolation, we are given a crowded, urban environment that makes it all too easy to seek help from passersby and the police. (Our protagonist’s repeated failure to do this adds to the film’s contrivance.) And instead of an everyman (or everywoman) character, we get one with an unnecessarily specific set of circumstances. This overwriting drags the film down, especially in the first half, while robbing the characters of relatability.

Admittedly, these comparisons might be a bit unfair, as Unhinged is a far different film from Duel. In fact, it almost completely abandons its traditional road-rage plot halfway through. It’s at that point that things start to get interesting – until Crowe’s snarling performance grows tiresome and Borte makes some ridiculous decisions, such as choosing to insert a Schwarzeneggeresque, darkly comic line at the film’s climax. At least we can be thankful that these characters will never be back.

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