Note: The writer of this review watched Unhinged from home on a digital screener. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Click here for an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
It’s with the reckless, relentless determination of its behind-the-wheel bogeyman that the new road-rage thriller Unhinged has pursued a dubious goal: to be the first movie to open wide in American theaters since they all shut down back in March. And though there have been speed bumps along the way—namely, last-minute rescheduling, steering the release date from early July to late August—the film does appear to be screeching onto screens this Friday, with all the caution of a daredevil drag-racer playing chicken during rush hour. The irony is that Unhinged, a loudly sadistic bad-guy vehicle for Russell Crowe, is the kind of discount pulp trash that might struggle during normal times to even secure theatrical distribution. It’s a wait-for-Redbox programmer, promoted by default into the (only) multiplex event of the summer.
There was a time when Crowe could loom without qualifiers over blockbuster season. Twenty years out from Gladiator, he’s started to slouch into a character actor’s career—for most recent example, see his hoot of a supporting performance in True History Of The Kelly Gang. Really, about all Unhinged has going for it is the spectacle of Crowe breaking truly bad for the first time since, what, Virtuosity? He’s used his bulkiness as weapon or deterrent before, and tapped, a few times also, into a steely anger—look into his fiery embers here and you’ll see traces of the “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife.” But this may be the first role that’s really capitalized on Crowe’s celebrity reputation as a hothead, even if the unnamed lunatic he’s playing only barks threats into a phone instead of chucking it at anyone.
First seen putting a bludgeoning, fiery punctuation on his broken marriage—an opening act of brutality that, unfortunately, leaves Crowe nothing to build toward in the menace department—the disgruntled driver eventually redirects his psychotic resentment to blandly frazzled single mother Rachel (Caren Pistorius), who gets stuck behind him in traffic and unwisely lays on the horn. With no delusions about turning his life around, “The Man” embarks on a single-minded campaign of harassment and intimidation, tailing Rachel and her son across the most nondescript roads and expressways of New Orleans, before escalating his tactics to violence against her family and friends. (On the plus side, one of the latter is played by Jimmi Simpson, a welcome addition to the supporting stretch of any big- or small-screen call sheet.)
If you squint hard enough into the film’s rearview mirror, you can make out glimmers of older, better highway-stalker films, from ’80s cult classic The Hitcher to Steven Spielberg’s first turn in the driver’s seat, the elemental man-versus-truck thriller Duel. Not that Unhinged has any of the mounting suspense or elegance of those movies. It’s a nasty but preposterous potboiler; the uglier the mayhem gets, the less believable it becomes. Though nominally unfurling a cautionary tale about the dangers of pissing off the wrong person on your morning commute, Carl Ellsworth’s script (his first since the Red Dawn remake eight years ago) seems just as goofily paranoid about the road map to personal ruin your cell phone could provide an enterprising maniac. A sturdier hand on the wheel might have rescued Unhinged, but director Derrick Borte gets precious little claustrophobic tension from the scenario. He’s no David R. Ellis, late purveyor of superior B-movie trashiness like Cellular.
Maybe the film wants to say something about the stresses and nonstop conflict of modern life; the opening credits strain for an apocalyptic topicality, using viral footage of roadside meltdowns and traffic-jam brawls to imply a powder keg just waiting to be lit. There are hints of misogynistic grievance, too, in Crowe’s character—a divorcee, just like Rachel, who complains of a legal system stacked against men. But seeing Unhinged as any kind of 21st-century Falling Down would require locating a sliver of humanity in this hulking slab of misdirected spite and fury. Crowe seethes and growls and furrows his sweaty brow and carries his bulky frame like a wrecking ball even when he’s not bashing in doors or skulls. But since his descent into madness happens essentially off camera, before the movie even begins, the Oscar-winning star has no other notes to play but blinding hostility. And seeing him just foam at the mouth for 90 minutes may leave the audience searching for an off ramp—or at least more reward for the present risk of a night at the movies.