Known as the Russell Crowe road-rage movie, Unhinged hits theaters — or at least the ones that dare to open stateside — on August 21st. Is it worth going masked and still risk infection to sit in a poorly ventilated multiplex, no matter how socially distanced, to see Crowe play demolition derby in daytime traffic? It’s your call. Even marking on a B-movie curve, Unhinged is running on empty.
All due respect to the Gladiator Oscar winner, who tries mightily to bring something relatably human to his role as a killing machine in a pickup truck. Are we not entertained? For a few minutes, maybe. In a terrifying opening scene, “the Man,” as Crowe’s character is pretentiously billed, sits in his car lighting matches and removing his wedding ring. Then he enters a house with an axe, chopping away at his ex and her new love, and burns down the place he once called home. The movie eventually reveals that the Man, who lives in “the City” (it’s unnamed, but mostly New Orleans) has been fired just before his pension kicked in, deserted by his cheating wife and treated as invisible by impolite society.
Cut to the home of Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a single mom who’s also living in a pressure cooker. A freelance hair stylist dumped by a client for tardiness, Rachel is dealing with a contentious divorce, a mother in a nursing home, a brother and his girlfriend who are sponging off her, and a son, Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), who worries that his mom will be late getting him to school. It’s on that drive that Rachel swerves around a truck that’s not moving at a green light. The driver is — you guessed it — the Man. He quickly pulls up beside Rachel asking for an apology she’s unwilling to give. In hiss mind, Rachel’s bad day is no excuse for not giving him at least a courtesy tap on her horn. Even Kyle agrees. Still no apology. “I don’t think you know what a bad day is,” says the Man. “But you’re gonna fucking learn.”
Up to this point, Unhinged gives off an enjoyably trashy vibe that suggests a real-time ride into hell. It also steals shamelessly from better, similarly-themed films, such as Duel, Falling Down and Changing Lanes. Director Derrick Borte (American Dreamer) escalates the tension, especially when the Man steals Rachel’s smartphone and goes through her messages and contact lists (she doesn’t use a password), threatening her friends and family. There’s a scene in which he keeps Rachel’s coffee date at a diner with Andy (Jimmi Simpson), a lawyer friend who the Man resents for screwing guys like him over in divorce suits. The graphic violence inflicted on Andy is just a taste of the horror to come.
It’s here that the script by Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia, The Last House on the Left remake) hits a pileup of improbabilities from which it never recovers. Though Pistorius is a solid actress, the script forces her into making so many boneheaded moves that that you want to scream at her in frustration. It’s quickly apparent that logic has no place here. The vehicular mayhem is sharply co-edited by Mike McKusker, who won an Oscar for Ford v Ferrari. But the plot goes nowhere at top speed, courtesy of carnage so repetitive that its makes 90 minutes seem like an eternity. Cars swerve, jacknife and crash, showing license plates that read: “America’s Heartland.”
Get it? Right from the doc-style prologue, the filmmakers vainly and desperately labor to attach Unhinged to the explosive anger (insert closeup of Crowe fuming) currently demolishing civil discourse in our unraveling world. For that, you need characters who are more than cardboard, a script that is more than an outline, and a director who is more than a traffic cop. Failing on all three levels, the film should be stamped: License revoked.