In a shocking twist, the most exciting part of Unhinged, the movie in which Russell Crowe plays a sweaty, road-raging lunatic, isn’t watching Russell Crowe play a sweaty, road-raging lunatic. Oddly, the most compelling part of Unhinged is seeing just how much mayhem director Derrick Borte and writer Carl Ellsworth can squeeze out of this most mundane of premises. It’s like they got a waiter who didn’t smile once and based an entire revenge fantasy on it.
Unhinged begins with a montage of real-life road-rage incidents — entertaining, though oddly positioning road rage as one of the greatest challenges facing society, up there with climate change and global inequality. Hey, points for clarity of purpose. That fades into the background as we meet our protagonist, Rachel (played by Caren Pistorius) a young mom who can’t seem to get out of her own way. She’s going through a divorce, she woke up late, and now her son (Kyle, played by Gabriel Bateman) is headed for yet another tardy and detention, thanks to congested freeways and Rachel’s poor choice of route (“Mom, no, don’t take the freeway!”). A client has just fired her by phone (again, thanks to her inability to show up on time) when she comes to a stoplight. That’s where Russell Crowe’s big pick-up truck awaits, parked ominously at the intersection even though the light has turned green.
Rachel sits there, annoyed for a beat (seems like she could just go around?) until she lays on the horn to express her discontent. At this point I turned to my fiancée and said, “Oh come on, just give a little tap to get the guy’s attention.” (This will become relevant in a second.) Rachel speeds around, but a second later ends up right next to the same pick-up at a red light. Crowe leans over in his seat, motions for Rachel’s son to roll down the window, all so he can ask, “Excuse me, ma’am, have you ever heard of a courtesy tap?” (Thank you!)
This failure to courtesy tap becomes, Seinfeld-like, the inciting incident around which this entire wild film revolves. Crowe’s character, sweaty, southern, and with a pronounced pot belly, the kind of Alex Jones-esque mien that screams “just received bad news at a custody hearing,” spends the rest of Unhinged trying to murder Rachel and everyone she knows to punish her (and all women) for this unconscionable breach of the social contract.
Again, you have to credit Carl Ellsworth and Derrick Borte (the latter of whom once directed a film called “H8RZ“) for clarity of concept. That being said, I thought I’d signed up to be bellowed at by a fat Aussie, rendering Crowe’s Southern twang slightly disappointing. There’s no narrative reason why this guy had to be a Southerner, and in fact Unhinged in every other way attempts to disguise its own geography. It was shot in New Orleans. Why not just make the setting New Orleans? Make it any place, but choose one. A movie set in a place always beats one set in no place.
There’s little to complicate the chase plot after the inciting incident and throughout, Unhinged’s biggest asset is its willingness to kill off characters at the drop of a hat. It’s a one-note movie (almost gloriously so) that has basically one trick, the smash-cut-to-gruesome-and-gratuitous death.
Yet within that monolithic structure there is a certain intriguing nuance. Crowe’s character, a man at the end of his rope, is not quite an anti-heroic psychopath in the vein of Michael Douglas in Falling Down or Travis Bickle; the movie is more like a straight-up slasher flick where an evil killer stalks a spunky woman. Yet Unhinged takes pains to make clear that Rachel could’ve avoided this predicament, if only she’d been a little nicer, as if the intended moral of the story was “come on, sweetie, show us that smile.”
Crowe’s character is clearly the antagonist, a sweaty, overweight divorcee with a bone to pick with society, essentially Alex Jones with the dial turned one more degree towards homicidal. Yet he’s also, vaguely, a romantic figure, enforcing a social contract that the movie itself ends up validating. That Unhinged‘s ads screech “only in theaters!” feels a bit like a plea to Jones’ audience.
Yet where Alex Jones stokes a culture war, Unhinged‘s One Big Issue is, of all things, road rage. Ah, horn etiquette, one of the defining issues of our time. Part of me wishes that the entire film had turned out to be a Watchmen-esque film-within-a-film at the end, pulling back to reveal that director’s child had been killed by some road rage incident. At least that way the movie would’ve left me with some feeling other than, “Wow, he sure overreacted, huh?”
You know those days when you’ve done a bunch of promo, station identifications, shout outs and answered the same questions over and over and you think to yourself … let’s just have a bit of fun now #Unhinged pic.twitter.com/s3WfPK6Gv8
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) August 17, 2020