Unhinged opens with Russell Crowe–identified only in the credits as “Man”–sitting in his pick-up truck outside a suburban house, staring at the tiny match he’s lit, his face impassive and his eyes narrowed. Abruptly he gets out of the truck, grabs an axe and a can of accelerant, and breaks down the door, cutting the man and woman inside to death before burning down the house.
The camera watches all this from a slight distance, as if director Derrick Borte (The Joneses) wants us to view these events, at least at first, objectively. We don’t know who this Man is, we don’t know who he’s killed or what has pushed him to commit these horrendous acts we’ve just witnessed, although we’ll learn a bit more later on.
As the opening credits of Unhinged roll out, they do so over a montage of news flashes, TV images, and audio clips of a society in the middle of a breakdown, with civility, empathy, and decency steamrolled by seemingly endless instances of impulsive, rude, aggressive, and even deadly behavior. Clearly the film is saying from the outset that this is the breeding ground which spawns the kinds of actions we’ve just seen.
So when he pulls up in his jumbo SUV next to a car driven by single mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius), who is dealing with personal and financial issues of her own and has honked a little too loudly at him when she is stuck behind the Man at a traffic light, we already know that she should not roll down her window and engage with a person who is, at this moment, the walking embodiment of road rage to the nth degree. Nevertheless, engage she does, and soon enough the Man is launching an onslaught of terror at Rachel, her son, and anyone in her circle.
For most of Unhinged’s 80 minutes (not including credits), Crowe is an unbridled force of nature–his intimidating glower and low, ominous growl (Southern-fried, just to add to the confused messaging) matched by his formidable bulk and still undeniable screen presence. He leaves it all on the field (or in this case, the pavement) in the film, but it’s a pity that his efforts are matched neither by the director, the script, nor the rest of the cast.
Since we’re never really sure whether we should see the Man as a symbol of unbridled white male rage or feel any pity for him, the way we gradually did for Michael Douglas in the far superior Falling Down from decades ago, Unhinged’s attempts to have it both ways as a slice of social commentary and a vicious horror thriller fall flat. As the film goes on, it’s clear where Borte and writer Carl Ellsworth’s instincts really lie: they just want to stage as many nasty kills as possible. The Man doesn’t just come up with creative, painful ways to dispatch people, but becomes almost as invincible as a Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers as he survives gunshot wounds, car crashes, and beatings over the head.
That’s part and parcel of the increasingly ludicrous script, which keeps finding more unbelievable ways to keep Rachel and her son as isolated as possible, even when the Man’s rampage provokes a city-wide manhunt. As for the actors themselves–which include Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson in a brief, over-the-top sequence–they may realize that they’re in a hopeless situation as they respond to each new outrage like they’re under mild sedation.
Unhinged does have its moments of tension and suspense, but they’re countered by the movie’s unrelieved nastiness and overall pointlessness. This is ultimately the kind of movie that wants you to think it’s saying something when it really has nothing insightful to offer. It’s a C-level slasher movie in better clothes, complete with a funny quip at the end to make everything better.
This is being billed as the first film in months to play solely on the big screen as movie theaters sort of reopen around the United States this weekend. You won’t find it on VOD, at least for now. But if you’re worried about congregating in an auditorium, I would recommend you wait a bit longer and not take the risk for Unhinged.
Unhinged opens in limited theatrical release on Friday, Aug. 21.