If this were a normal, non-pandemic summer, UNHINGED would’ve been exactly the type of B-movie I’d relish seeing at a theater on a hot afternoon – popcorn, maybe a hot dog and a soda in hand, in the company of strangers as ever-so-momentarily carefree as I. So it feels super weird to have watched this strange and scruffy Russell Crowe B-thriller from home on a screener, days before it’s supposed to be the movie that “reopens theaters” in the U.S. All this is to say, be careful out there and please enjoy UNHINGED to your heart’s content whenever and however it’s safest to do so.
In the peripheral, bloated, “post-A list” back-half of his career, Russell Crowe has done some great shit. Sure, it’s been a minute since he’s been in anything that’s broken the monoculture, but he’s taken on plenty of interesting, often-supporting genre roles that all seem to be taking equal, pointed advantage of both his brawling, hot-tempered public persona and his genuine movie-star charisma. From Shane Black’s criminally underrated buddy comedy The Nice Guys to Justin Kurzel’s punk-rock historical fiction epic True History of the Kelly Gang, there’s very little Crowe has done in recent years where he isn’t bringing his A-game to some solid under-the-radar-genre fare.
Now, in this foul year of our lord 2020, Crowe has made what can only be described as his next logical career step, taking on the big-baddie role in a trashy road-rage B-thriller that totally works when it’s focused on the mayhem at hand, and totally doesn’t when it’s attention is elsewhere.
The official synopsis of UNHINGED is quite promising in its simplicity: “After a confrontation with an unstable man at an intersection, a woman becomes the target of his rage.” Sounds like an open canvas for Russell Crowe to shout and lumber his way through and leave a trail of blood, fire, broken bones, and burning rubber in his wake, right? Only problem is, the movie tries way too hard to coat the whole thing in social commentary that never quite adds up. After a cold open that efficiently sets up Crowe’s character, motivations, and blood lust, the film meanders through an opening credit sequence of road rage footage (some real, some fabricated, I think) and news voiceovers saying things like, “Social media has made people more angry” and “Road rage is on the rise. Society is changing and those who are left behind are angry and desperate” or whatever. Stuff like this pops up periodically throughout the movie, laboriously reminding the viewer that this is a reality where everyone’s either distracted by their phones or angry at everyone.
As I write this, I realize maybe the movie is more, I don’t know, aware of what it’s trying to say about “society” than I’m giving it credit for. It’s just that the way it’s executed feels like a fumble. Is this supposed to be a Joker-esque portrait of society’s contemporary ills or does this movie take place in a Purge-like alternate universe where technology has made everyone so angry they could become a homicidal maniac at any second?
Most of the character development and attempts at dramatic tension don’t quite come together either. Caren Pistorius is more than adequate as the agitated Rachel, a newly-single mom whose very bad day veers into hell territory when she shares a brief altercation on the road with the killer-truck driving Crowe. There’s what I would call an unnecessary amount of time at the top of the movie setting up Rachel’s family life and motivations, which is a drag on the action more than it is an emotional hook for it. I’m sure the nuts-and-bolts plotting in the film is shotty as well, but honestly, that’s almost never something I pay much attention to, especially in a B-thriller like this one.
At the end of the day, the plot succeeds, if only technically, at steering Crowe’s character through his trail of carnage, and there’s enough of our man working his eye-bulging, rage-fueled dark magic to propel the viewer through a nasty bit of business that almost plays like a twisted live-action version of the Russell Crowe South Park episode. In other words, UNHINGED is sufficiently fun and cheap entertainment that I mostly want people to see (again, under safe conditions only) because I want Crowe incentivized to keep hummin on this B-thriller/slasher vibe a while longer. It’s been a joy to experience former A-lister Nicolas Cage transform into this era’s Vincent Price and I hope UNHINGED is the beginning of a similar trajectory for Crowe. With any luck, he’ll eventually find his own Mandy or Color Out of Space and we’ll all be a little better off for it.
UNHINGED will arrive in theaters August 21, 2020.