Unhinged is a brand new thriller from director Derrick Borte, and stars Caren Pistorius as Rachel, a soon-to-be-divorced mother with a chronic inability to be on time for anything. While attempting to take her son to school in the midst of heavy traffic jams (with road rage issues – which are on the rise – becoming more prevalent and violent), Rachel gets stuck behind a pickup truck that refuses to move at a green light, and honks hard, eventually becoming frustrated enough to simply drive around the truck and take off before she can miss the light. The key thing of which she is unaware, however, is that said truck is being driven by none other than a mentally unstable man (Russell Crowe), with a history of substance abuse and sudden outbursts, who had just murdered his ex-wife and her boyfriend less than 24 hours earlier. After a conversation between the two at the following light leads to a stalemate during which Rachel refuses to apologize to the man, things turn quickly violent, and a cat-and-mouse road rage chase ensues, causing Rachel to fight for her life. Written by Carl Ellsworth, and also starring Jimmi Simpson, Lucy Faust, and Austin P. McKenzie, Unhinged asks us to take a look at our everyday habits, and ask ourselves whether giving into anger and frustration is truly worth what it costs us in the end.
This movie seemed to have a lot riding on its shoulders, given that it was the first high-profile release in movie theaters since their reopening, but the truth is it seems this wouldn’t have been any sort of high-profile project, or had nearly as much attention paid to it as it has, if not for that very specific reason. There’s nothing in the marketing or in the production aspects of the film that indicate the filmmakers actually knew this was going to be stage one of a testing ground for if people were going to go back into theaters after a plague shut them down for five months, and any advertisements that signaled that sort of triumphant return clearly were only thought up once Solstice (the studio that distributed the film) had the drop on Tenet after that film moved summer release dates three or four times in a row. (In fact, it’s really Tenet that will better indicate just how eager to get back into movie theaters people actually are, whether or not weighing the risks will matter, and whether the newly implemented cleaning techniques, distancing and mask requirements, and reduced capacities in auditoriums will actually work.) It’s unfortunate, then, that this opportunity grab may not quite have had the effect Unhinged was hoping for.
Unhinged is okay. That’s it. It’s just…okay. The chase sequences, as an absolutely deranged Russell Crowe is chasing Caren Pistorius through the streets and on the interstates, are well-filmed (if a bit choppy) and the film’s pacing rarely lets up. The two lead performances are pretty good too. Pistorius really is the MVP of the movie, and has the best performance in it full-stop, but Crowe is somewhat unnerving in this film, even if he’s really only being asked to play one note over and over and over again. It’s one of those situations where the performance is all there, but the character the performance is meant to be built on just didn’t get completed by the time shooting was due to begin, which is what brings us to the main thing about this movie that simply doesn’t work – the characters.
Entertaining chase sequences and road rage as part of a road rage thriller? Yup. Russell Crowe doing his Javert performance but with an American accent and a greater emphasis on brutality in his misguided pursuit of retribution? Check. Well-developed characters with clear motivations, goals, and inner lives? Apparently not. And that’s really the main thing keeping this movie in “okay” territory when it could have been a genuinely good, even great, movie. Outside of the action set-pieces, there just isn’t very much to justify watching this movie, and much of that has to do with a lack of well-established characters. Unhinged wants you to fear what Russell Crowe might do more than it wants you to fear Russell Crowe’s character, but the truth is, he never does anything so unsettling in the film (as in, things we’ve never seen him do before) that we are made to be afraid of him. They try to establish early on that this man is highly unstable, citing a substance abuse issue and violent outbursts as backstory for why he reacts the way he does, but we only see a glimpse of just how brutal he is at the beginning, before the title card comes up. For the rest of the film’s runtime, we only know him as “the man chasing the main character,” not whatever terrifying monster he’s actually meant to be. And we don’t know why or how he became this terrifying monster apart from one bit of throwaway dialogue tucked into the end of the second act. Crowe’s performance is definitely there, but the character underneath is incredibly shallow and one-dimensional.
Ditto goes for Pistorius’ character as well. It’s not so much that she’s as poorly developed as Crowe is, but more that the writer throw a growth arc at her that we never see her actually learn from all that much. One of these arcs is the character’s chronic lateness, which is what causes her to get stuck in traffic and piss off Russell Crowe in the first place, but that lateness never has any consequences apart from setting off the plot, and even then, the inciting incident is only vaguely related to this struggle. Another one of these arcs, which seems to feed into the theme of the movie telling people to be careful giving into frustration (and doesn’t really fit with how Crowe’s character behaves even before Pistorius lays the horn on him), is Pistorius’ need to calm down whenever things don’t work out, traffic-wise, or she ends up barely missing a bad situation. The trouble is that this arc is made good upon by the film’s end, but the moment that brings it back to the forefront of the film’s themes doesn’t make sense as a way to push that theme through. I won’t go into spoilers here (for all twelve of you watching Unhinged over the weekend), but suffice it to say, what occurs in the film’s final moments to bring this theme of not rushing to anger home is exactly the kind of thing people should be allowed to get angry about.
There are positives about this movie, however, lest one think I’m only here to bash Unhinged around like it’s some sort of theatrical ticking time bomb I have to diffuse via roasting its poor character development to death. As stated before, the car chase sequences are genuinely fun to watch, and carry a real sense of weight with each one that occurs (although, really the full movie is like, two car chases split by a missed meeting and then an ending that has nothing to do with cars). The use of common vehicles like pickup trucks and minivans give them a solid sense of realism and an almost Bourne-like authenticity in the action. There are also some genuinely clever plot elements, one of which occurs during an interstate chase, that makes the audience go “huh, even I wasn’t thinking of that one, but that’s actually pretty smart,” before the sequence kicks back in. As far as positives go, though, that’s about it. Well, that and the pacing generally never getting boring.
Truthfully, there isn’t much to say about Unhinged because there isn’t much movie to review in the frame. It makes good on its premise, for the most part, but fails to establish the characters meant to make that premise work to its full potential. It’s hardly the worst thing in theaters to watch right now, to be fair, but one also has to wonder if, sans-pandemic, Solstice would have even attempted to put it in theaters, when they could have opted for a VOD release instead. And perhaps that’s what they should have done.
I’m giving “Unhinged” a 5.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.