Psychological thriller not worth the drive
August 26, 2020
As theaters begin to open up again around the country, one question lingers in the minds of potential moviegoers: Is there anything out right now that’s even good enough to justify the trip?
That question looms large over the new psychological thriller Unhinged, which has been marketed as the first wide theatrical release since the COVID pandemic shut theaters down way back in March. With its menacing tone and sinister lead performance by Russell Crowe, it’s certainly not the most inviting “welcome back” to the multiplex, but it may draw curious crowds despite itself.
Crowe plays a hulking juggernaut credited only as The Man, who we first see sitting in a rain-battered pickup truck as he pops some pills before breaking into a house and murdering the occupants. We then meet Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a single mom who encounters bumper-to-bumper traffic while running late to take her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school. Pulling off at a nearby exit, she levels a prolonged horn honk at the pickup truck in front of her, only to be confronted by The Man in the driver’s seat. When she refuses to apologize to him — he didn’t move promptly through a green light, after all — The Man wages all-out war on Rachel and her family as payback.
If you lop off the lengthy opening credits, whose loaded images of civil unrest must have been added late into post-production to evoke the current cultural climate, Unhinged stands at a lean and mean 75 minutes. In that respect, the film mainly stays within its lane of trashy B-movies that have come before it but never quite catches up to the quality of better road rage films like Duel and Changing Lanes.
A major factor that flat-tires the storyline is just how inexplicably untouchable The Man is throughout his violent rampage. Director Derrick Borte bends over backward to explain the beleaguered police are just spread too thin, but no matter how preoccupied your police force is, I’m pretty sure you can make time for the guy committing multiple homicides in broad daylight with plenty of witnesses.
Despite working from a strained script with only small bits of character development sprinkled in, Crowe and Pistorius often carry the movie on the strength of their intense performances alone. Although he gets off to a rocky start with a horribly misjudged Southern accent in his first speaking scene, Crowe quickly rebounds as he crafts an apoplectic antagonist who is genuinely unsettling and intimidating.
Pistorius is even better as a new divorcee who already seems to be at her wit’s end before she meets Crowe’s Man but somehow finds more room to convincingly descend into personal ruin. Even though there are numerous scenes where the two actors are simply barking at their cell phones while driving, they’re able to translate the tension and sell that they’re having their terse conversations in real time.
It’s when Borte tries to awkwardly graft socially conscious themes onto his gritty thrill ride that the film veers a bit too far into “We Live in a Society” territory. The movie does tap into our collective anxiety from time to time but doesn’t investigate it in a particularly thoughtful or empathetic way. When The Man waxes poetic about how uncaring the world is and what exactly pushed him over the edge, it implies that we’re supposed to feel sympathy for a character who is unmistakably the villain of this story.
Despite some sturdy performances and effectively suspenseful sequences, Unhinged simply isn’t worth racing out to the theaters for any time soon.
New movies this weekend
Opening in theaters is The New Mutants, a superhero horror film starring Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy which is the long-delayed conclusion to the X-Men movie franchise.
Available to rent on demand and watch in theaters is Bill & Ted Face the Music, a time travel comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter that reunites the titular amiable slackers after their Excellent Adventure from 31 years ago.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime is Get Duked!, a British black comedy starring Eddie Izzard and Kate Dickie about four city boys on a wilderness trek as they try to escape a mysterious hunter.