REVIEW – ‘Unhinged’ is undermined by its penchant for twisted violence and improbable set pieces

By fortunate virtue of every summer blockbuster moving out of its way, Unhinged arrives in Australian and European cinemas this week with far more attention than it would have initially received. Sure, it’s got an Academy Award winner at its helm, but you get the feeling this film was heading straight to DVD/streaming before scrupulous studio executives saw an opportunity to seize on the fact there’s barely anything else new to cinemas right now.

Standing as a test case for cinemas desperate to get back on their feet after the COVID-19 shutdown, Unhinged may indeed benefit from audiences clambering to see literally anything on the big screen again, regardless of the film’s quality. As such, it may likely serve as no consequence to hear Unhinged is a fairly reprehensible and morally bankrupt piece of cinema that fumbles its potential message regarding violence against women and the collapse of society by its overreliance on subpar shocks and sadistic violence.

After a brutally violent prologue involving a hammer and a splash of gasoline, we meet perpetually late Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a newly-single mother struggling through a messy divorce. Living with her teenage son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), her brother Freddie (Austin P. McKenzie), and his girlfriend Mary (Lucy Faust), Rachel is doing a poor job of juggling too many balls at once.

In the midst of rushing Kyle to school, Rachel receives a call from an exacerbated client who fires her for being late for their appointment for the umpteenth time. With Kyle now also late for class, Rachel makes the fateful decision to exit the freeway and attempt an alternate route to save time. It’s here she becomes stuck behind an enormous 4×4 truck who fails to turn on a green light, resulting in numerous furious beeps of the horn from a frustrated Rachel.

Behind the wheel is pill-popping psychopath Tom Hunter (Russell Crowe), who we’re already acutely aware is not someone you want to tick off. When Tom doesn’t take kindly to Rachel’s incessant horn honking, he follows her to the next traffic lights and demands an apology. While Rachel is initially sympathetic, she blames her anger on the shocking day she’s having but still refuses to apologise. Intent on teaching Rachel what it’s really like to have a bad day, Tom begins to stalk and torment the beleaguered mother all over town with deadly consequences for anyone connected to Rachel.

Taking heavy inspiration from films like Falling Down, Duel, and Joy Ride, Unhinged plays it safe by sticking closely to the tropes of a narrative driven by a disgruntled nutjob taking out his unmerciful vengeance on a host of innocent victims. For 90 minutes, we’re subjected to an increasingly violent series of set pieces featuring Crowe’s cartoonish whackjob with a chip on his shoulder created from his apparent mistreatment by society. There’s a thin attempt to initially flesh out the character with some backstory and motivation for his actions, but it soon gets tossed out the window and we’re left with little more than a madman whose fury consistently seems entirely overblown.

It’s a menacing role Crowe handles tremendously well, especially given the actor’s own infamous history of anger management issues, which was just begging for some well-placed meta humour. But there’s no shred of levity here, leaving Crowe’s one-note performance to start at an 11 and stay there for almost the entirety of the film. Pistorius tries her utmost to elevate Rachel beyond a thinly-drawn struggling single mother, but there’s ultimately very little for her to work with. The screenplay by Carl Ellsworth¬†does Pistorius little favour by continually forcing Rachel to make a host of frustratingly ridiculous character choices that become incredulously annoying as the narrative barrels along.

During the opening credits, director Derrick Borte peppers his audience with footage of road rage incidents, supermarket meltdowns, and protest-fueled riots to suggest his film may have something pertinent to say about the societal collapse of recent years. While the occasional sharp observation breaks in, like a group of bystanders filming Tom’s violence on their cellphones instead of coming to the aide of his victim, these moments are few and far between in a film that’s mostly an exhibition of a nihilistic maniac intent on punishing a woman just for existing.

Throughout Tom’s prolonged campaign of violence against Rachel, there’s never a moment where she’s not portrayed as his powerless victim, even in the film’s rather comical climax where Rachel finally fights back. It’s disappointing in 2020 to see a film like Unhinged treat its female characters as little more than hapless meat bags who exist for the sole purpose of increasing the final body count, including one poor woman who’s seemingly punished for the travesty of applying mascara while behind the wheel. There was the opportunity for this film to say something vital about violence against women, but the screenplay is far too busy finding outrageous ways to see them tortured instead.

We saw a similar narrative earlier this year in The Invisible Man, which succeeded by eliciting an emotional connection with its lead character from the opening frames and offered a sobering portrait of domestic violence that impressively tapped into the cultural zeitgeist. The same simply can’t be said of something like Unhinged, which struggles to deliver anything but a violent spectacle that becomes increasingly tiresome as the bodies continue to fall.

It’s a film that initially wants its audience to consider their actions and choose compassion instead of anger when faced with the frustrating behaviour of a perfect stranger. In other words, don’t be a Karen. But it’s a message that is consistently undermined and ultimately lost by the film’s penchant for twisted violence and improbable set pieces that push the boundaries of believability a tad too far.

If you’re aching to see Crowe chew the scenery and truly let his anger really fly, Unhinged is the perfect film to break your self-imposed lockdown. If you’re looking for something with a little more substance and style, maybe stick to whatever you can find on Netflix.

Distributor: StudioCanal
Cast: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie
Director: Derrick Borte
Producers: Lisa Ellzey, Mark Gill, Andrew Gunn
Screenplay: Carl Ellsworth
Cinematography: Brendan Galvin
Production Design: Freddy Waff
Costume Design: Denise Wingate
Music: David Buckley

Editing: Michael McCusker, Steve Mirkovich, Tim Mirkovich
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: 30th July 2020 (Australia)