Review – Unhinged (2020)

I don’t have to tell anyone that we live in perilous times. In America, we’re told that in any number of ways daily. Still, in a country that has spent much of 2020 in fear of national and global catastrophe, we would appear to be in a period of “reopening” as of this writing. Theaters are beginning to allow the public back in, and Unhinged is now here as one of the first high-profile releases. As we exist in worries of illness and civil unrest, Unhinged hits us with fears that exist in a much more mundane sense: what happens when we incite the rage of a person at the worst point of their life and become the focal point of all their ability to hurt and harm? That’s a disturbing question posed by this cautionary tale (prepped nicely by an effective opening credits), and without a doubt, Unhinged is a disturbing tale. Yet, does it tell that tale as well as it could?

In the film, we follow Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a single mother raising her son while dealing with her on-going divorce. On a routine day of trying to balance her son’s school drop-off and getting to work on time, Rachel’s impatience with a driver ahead of her proves to be a much bigger problem. Further down the road at another intersection, that driver, Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe), wants an apology, which Rachel is unwilling to give. The problem becomes a full-fledged pursuit, highlighting how vulnerable we can be today to a person who looks to harm to us and those around us. The commonality of commutes and the vulnerability of our identity online connects most of us to the premise, so you could say that this film has a compelling premise from the get-go. While that premise is perfectly mundane, Tom’s obsessive fixation and imposing size and strength fits him squarely within the horror genre, as much as this film is a thriller. In my view, the danger he exhibits is even more terrifying than some ghoul or goblin.

The cat-and-mouse game that ensues between the two leads is what this film is all about, and as a result, a film of this type lives and dies based on the protagonist and antagonist. Pistorius, largely unknown to me prior, leads adequately, but I could never fully connect with her. While I can’t defend the actions and motivations of Crowe’s character, Tom, Rachel’s words and choices open her life up to the pain that Tom pours out. Part of that is the writing, but Pistorius never became a fully likable lead. Crowe, on the other hand, is why we come to see this. After a career of lead roles that have often featured him as a man on a mission in varying degrees of obsession (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Les Miserables, etc.), this role takes the cake. I’m not saying this is his prime example of acting, but Crowe has a skillset that makes him made for this. He can be dangerous, mysterious, and consumed by purpose (as shown by the aforementioned film), but this film allows him to run with it in all these ways in a heightened way. That said, while he commands the screen anytime he’s on it, I did not see him disappear into this role like he does with others. I found myself throughout thinking, “Why is Russell Crowe so mad?”

Had that thought been “Why is the character of Tom Cooper so mad?”, it still would have been a question needing an answer (that we never fully get answered), but the fact he doesn’t disappear into this role like I know he could kept this film distant to connect with as a viewer. Some films explore motivations in fine detail, but Unhinged makes its case succinctly for what drives the antagonist. Don’t look for much more than what that gives you, and you won’t be disappointed. That will be a problem for some viewers, and it won’t be for others. Some just tune in for a thrill ride, and the film largely delivers. The intensity of the film’s action once it really gets going can’t be overstated, and for many viewers, that will be worth the price of admission alone. However, I couldn’t help but think after the film was somehow less than it could have been, had it given a little more depth and understanding to it all. There are a few glaring examples of dialogue that made my eyes roll, and one shouldn’t be doing that in a film that has many components that are working very right.

Content-wise, the film earns its R-rating through heavy language and some truly brutal violence. I get the feeling that some will fill seats for this that aren’t used to the blood and macabre on display, and I don’t blame them. I tend to feel that realistic depictions of terror involving real people and situations are far more frightening than some monster or creature feature. This film effectively shows why I feel that way. I do not recommend this film for anyone below the suggested rating, and even then, that relatability to feeling that this could happen to anybody makes it even more unsettling. Very little on display is spiritually edifying on surface level, but the entire film is filled with examples of how not to treat your fellow man. In that spiritual sense, I couldn’t help but think about the vengeance that can result from holding a grudge, and I thank Jesus that He doesn’t hold my indiscretions against me. People are capable of causing so much hurt and hate when they do not let things go, and this film shows that very effectively.

Overall, I enjoyed the film, at least in what Derrick Borte, the director, attempted to do. It was in no way a wasted experience, and I would rather scary movies to take more cues from the relatable than the fantastical. Russell Crowe is always captivating, and even if Unhinged demands more of an exhibition of his presence than a performance, he kept me compelled throughout the film’s uneven experience. That said, the film’s abrupt ending, sometimes cringey dialogue, and half-realized exploration of motivations left me feeling that there is a better version of this film out there in the multiverse. If you do choose to drive to the theater to see it, expect a thrill ride and little more, and you won’t be disappointed. However, please drive responsibly.

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