Well that was unpleasant.
The first two names that jumped out at me when looking into the specifics of the new film starring Russell Crowe were writer Carl Ellsworth (the remakes of Red Dawn and The Last House on the Left, as well as films like Disturbia and Red Eye, which are interesting genre works that feel like remakes of better movies) and director Derrick Borte (who made another movie about a downtrodden, middle-aged white guy last year, called American Dreamer, starring Jim Gaffigan). But this latest work, Unhinged, is particularly repugnant because unlike his last film, Borte gives us Crowe (simply named The Man in the credits), who opens the film killing his presumably ex-wife and her new significant other with a hammer in their home and burning it to the ground. It’s a quick and effective opening, and certainly gets the point across that Crowe has nothing to lose during the course of his meltdown turned murder spree.
We also meet hair stylist Rachel (Caren Pistorius), whose life is going only slightly better. She’s in the middle of a divorce, and her husband has just filed a motion to get custody of the house that she currently lives in, along with their young son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), as well as her younger brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) and his girlfriend. Rachel’s life is a mess and getting messier. When we meet her, she’s waking up late, and subsequently is running late to drop her son off at school and to make her first appointment with a client, who is miffed enough at her consistent lateness that she fires her. These two desperate lives come together at a traffic light, which, when it turns green, Crowe doesn’t move immediately, leaving Rachel honking at him in anger. He pulls up next to her, apologizing for spacing out at the light due to his terrible day and demanding she apologize for honking at him. She says “Join the club” about his bad day, and that’s when he promises he’s going to show her what a really bad day is like.
Anyone looking for a film that plumbs the emotional depths of road rage or hulking white guys who drive pick-up trucks should probably look elsewhere. Unhinged is basically about a psycho trying to teach a woman a lesson by killing or threatening to kill those closest to her before, presumably, killing her in the end. In case you’re not sure why Crowe’s character is doing what he’s doing, he’s able to state it plainly and clearly as he brutalizes his next targets, usually in front of a group of other people, since he’s fine with suicide by police…and we know this because, again, he says it just like that. There’s not much room for subtlety here, is what I’m saying.
And Crowe basically wears the same snarling face and greasy mop of hair for the entire 90 minutes of the movie. If there are any moments where we think reason and compassion might factor into his decision making, they are quickly dispatched lest we think there’s an ounce of depth to his actions. Not that I’m looking for reasons to feel sorry for the guy, but there isn’t a great deal of mystery or character development attached to The Man, to the point where it almost feels reckless, as if the film is a cautionary tale aimed at anyone who has even been tempted to honk a horn at someone without giving them a courtesy tap first.
Unhinged feels like sweaty, tough-guy posturing, and while I still feel compelled to watch every Russell Crowe film I can, this feels more like a role Mel Gibson should be doing, if only because the character seems more in his current wheelhouse. Pistorius is strong here as someone who gets startled but never lets her fear paralyze her; she’s always thinking about how to outsmart and outmaneuver Crowe, and that makes her more of a person of action and less someone who just happened not to get killed. The movie is more of a daylight horror film than any type of psychological thriller, and looked at in those terms, there is a great deal of fear and anxiety generated, along with the graphic violence. It’s not great, but it’s also not boring, even if it is mostly predictable and morally gross.
Unhinged opens in theaters Thursday, August 20.
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