Movie Review – Unhinged (2020)

Principal Cast : Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P McKenzie, Juliene Joyner, Shephen Louis Grush, Anne Leighton, Michael Papajohn, Lucy Faust, Devyn A Tyler, Samantha Beaulieu.
Synopsis:  After a confrontation with an unstable man at an intersection, a woman becomes the target of his rage.

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Falling Down meets Changing Lanes meets Cellular in 2020’s Unhinged, in which Russell Crowe plays a total psychopath terrorising a young mum after she honks him at an intersection. One of those rare low-budget films that delivers exactly what you expect, with a few nice surprises, Unhinged makes the most of Crowe’s absolutely withering bad guy performance and Derrick Borte’s overblown direction. Violent, pulsating action-thrillers don’t often come along that try to be this effective, despite an overabundance of contrivance and coincidence that’s tangibly laughable, but Unhinged is definitely a high-octane fingernail-shredding journey into one man’s madness.

Rachel Flynn (Caren Pistorius – Mortal Engines) is a newly single mother living with her brother Fred (Austin P McKenzie) and his girlfriend, taking care of her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman – Annabelle). Her life appears to be spiralling out of control, that is until she encounters the mentally unstable Tom Hunter (Crowe) at an intersection where she honks at him in a pique of frustration. Hunter sets about retaliating, with homicidal intent, as he carves a trail of destruction through Rachel’s life to obtain a precious “apology” – he kills Rachel’s divorce attorney (Jimmi Simpson – Westworld) at a café, and then heads after her brother, all with Rachel trying to outwit him and the police trying to corner him.

There’s a lot about Unhinged that’s positively laughable. At first blush the premise is elegantly simple: a woman sets off a deranged maniac and he sifts through her personal life to exact some insane revenge. Crowe’s Tom Hunter steals Rachel’s phone at one point in the film and sets about going through her contacts and other personal information to effectively ruin her, a psychotic overreaction to a momentary outburst of frustration. Exactly how Hunter keeps accessing the phone without Rachel’s password or ability to bypass her other security measures isn’t explained at all in the dialogue or on the screen, and there’s a convoluted set of circumstances that set in  motion the whole cat-and-mouse pursuit through the streets of New Orleans. But Crowe, Pistorius and director Borte gamely accept the challenges and rise to the occasion.

The basic premise of a “man who finally snaps” has been cloned, remixed and carbon-copied through Hollywood filters for years. From Michael Douglas’ iconic turn in Falling Down, to Sam Jackson’s similarly themed road-rage thriller Changing Lanes (which also starred Ben Affleck), people who crack under pressure are a go-to method of quick, simple bursts of cathartic cinematic junk food. Be it revenge, be it ideological, be it some patriarchal fantasy, a good old-fashioned screen-psycho always seems to tap into our primordial baser instincts. Russell Crowe has the ability to satisfy this bloodlust in us, playing the utterly deranged Tom Hunter with a growly, sweat-besmirched predatory rage, fuelled by an unseen spark (a pre-credit sequence has him murder his ex-wife and her new boyfriend in cold blood, so I think we can guess at what sets him off) and layered by a sense of social selfishness and what he perceives as a decay of modern life.

The screenplay Carl Ellsworth, himself no stranger to this kind of intimate small-scale thriller following Red Eye and Disturbia, is a brisk affair, layering in subtle character development that props up the eventual bloodier and deadlier antics to follow. He gives Crowe’s central character an easy set of defining traits: he’s overweight and intelligent, a hulking figure in Rachel’s rear-view mirror as he chases her across the city wreaking havoc. Physically, Rachel has no chance in a confrontation, meaning she must outwit the older angry man, which is where a lot of Unhinged’s plot conniptions really dig in. Crowe absolutely chews the shit out of the scenery here, a hypnotic if entirely overplayed performance that threads the needle between hilariously over-the-top and deadpan serious. He towers over the film’s other star, Caren Pistorius, who does her best to give Rachel a sense of humanity amidst the absolute carnage occurring around her. As the film progresses, Rachel endures confusion, outrage, terror, rage and eventually calm practicality, all whilst Crowe’s Hunter bears down on her and her family. A lot of good work is also done by young Gabriel Bateman as her son, who manages not to get sucked into Crowe’s orbit of influence and extricates decent character work from what is a threadbare yet lengthy supporting role.

As with these kinds of films, the use of technology plays a crucial role in Unhinged’s unsettling tableau; from the way Tom accesses Rachels life – contacts, friends, addresses, bank accounts etc etc – to his ability to formulate an overly complex plan of revenge within what must surely only be minutes, never has Apple’s Find My Phone feature been so prominently used to generate tension than here. There’s always an interesting balance between actual practical use of technology to solve real-world problems and a film’s need to somehow avoid using technology to solve said problem and draw out an interesting narrative or plot point. Unhinged doesn’t quite succeed but in the moment you kinda need to go with it; thinking too much about this film’s plot structure will have you chuckling to yourself, and that’s not what you want to be doing.

The third leg in this tripod of telephonic terror is director Derrick Borte, who delivers a kinetic, frantic style that exemplifies a lot of what’s wrong with many modern action films: there’s soooo much editing. Why use two or three shots when six will work so much worse? This film isn’t Taken 3 bad, but the constant cutting and frenetic camerawork during the action sequences does become a tad tiresome, in spite of the committed performances. Having said that, the shots all work, the violence is brutal without being totally gore-porn, and a lot of the tension comes from the omnipresent score by David Buckley, rather than the development of some kind of climactic moment. This isn’t a story that really builds to anything, rather it’s a collection of interesting confrontations in a variety of urbane settings, and the climax occurs in an empty house’s attic space. It’s a film that runs out of steam by the third act: as cheesy and B-movie brilliant as the premise and opening setup all is, the final act underwhelms by comparison with a “hey, let’s spend ten minutes with Crowe driving around a gated community for some contrived reason” lack of… well, drive.

If you buy into Crowe’s quite literally unhinged performance, there’s a decent amount to enjoy with this blast of 70’s-style revenge action. It’s violent, gamely acted and decently directed (in spite of my aforementioned critique) for the most part, and generates enough terror for the audience to ride through even the dull parts. Fat Angry Crowe is scary Crowe, that’s for damn sure, and I think the man could make a good fist of slipping into more villain roles in the years to come. Unhinged is workable and enjoyable, just don’t think too hard about it all.