A film review by Craig J. Koban November 30, 2020


UNHINGED zero stars  

2018, R, 90 mins.

Russell Crowe as The Man  /  Gabriel Bateman as Kyle  /  Caren Pistorius as Rachel

Directed by Derrick Borte  /  Written by Carl Ellsworth

UNHINGED is not only a putrid film, but it also lowers itself to the level of the worst kind of indefensible trash.  

On paper, it's a hellishly violent road rage thriller that wants to be lurid, sensationalistic B-grade grindhouse fare and a thoughtful commentary piece about sensitive societal issues.  You simply can't have it both ways.  You can't offer up a portrait of toxically dangerous masculinity run amok and then revel in the bloodshed and carnage contained within while attempting to say something meaningful about what triggers psychopaths in the first place.  The ick factor alone in UNHINGED is deplorably high, and when its lame brained efforts at social commentary are failures it serves up gratuitous human misery for the purposes of cheap titillation.  If you want to see a movie featuring a bloated - and utterly wasted - Russell Crowe punch, kick, stab, choke, set on fire, and torture women and children for 90 minutes...then this is your film.  

All others...stay away. 

The plot - if we could even call it that - of this Derrick Borte directed thriller is so paper thin that a cocktail napkin would be too big of a surface to jot it down on: A troubled and down on her luck women is stalked by a murderous road rager.  That's about it.  I'll concede, though, that UNHINGED does contain a modestly chilling opening sequence featuring a man...known in the credits as The Man (Crowe) sitting uncomfortably in his vehicle that's parked outside of a suburban home.  He seems in pain and with an obvious mental screw lose.  After gleefully guzzling down multiple prescription pills, he then proceeds to take off his wedding ring, exits the car, and walks to the front door of the house.  He breaks in with an axe, which he later uses without remorse or hesitation against his ex wife and her new lover.  He then dowses the dwelling with gasoline and burns it down to the ground with the dead bodies still inside.  We quickly learn that this unnamed nut just got fired from his job months away from securing a pension and was also cheated on by his newly dead wife.   

Borte then segues into an opening title card montage showcasing random violence, road rage incidents, rioting, fighting, crashes, etc., all set against news talk radio pundits weighing in on how bad people can be in a society left unchecked and protected by underfunded police departments (the latter sentiment perhaps the most tone deaf reveal among many in this film in terms of mirroring contemporary civil strife).  This weird shot at cinema verite not only seems creatively disingenuous to the type of film to come, but it's awfully lazy visual short hand trying to masquerade as thoughtful commentary.  Anyhoo', the story then segues to Rachel (Caren Pistorius), who's having a tough go of it in life like The Man, but doesn't release her introverted rage on the world like he does.  She's recently divorced and going through a painful legal battle with her ex, not to mention that she's struggling with her job and staying financially afloat.  She does have some support in her recently arrived brother in Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) and her well meaning teenage son in Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), but overall her life's just a mess.  She's not so much looking after her son as her son is looking after her. 



One fateful morning she rushes to get out of the house to make it to work on time (she's hopelessly late) with her son in tow, and while on one particular stretch of bumper to bumper freeway traffic she become angered by a car in front of her that won't move on a green light.  She blows past it and angrily mouths off to the driver, who just happens to be...you got it...The Man, who just might be the wrong man to flip the bird to on the road, especially after witnessing his unique handling of his adulterous wife.  The Man decides to pull around to the side of Rachel's rundown Volvo station wagon and quietly asks for an apology.  She refuses with angry expletives, which he doesn't take very well at all.  In a fit of venomous anger, The Man takes it upon himself to follow and torment this woman as much as possible, both with verbal and physical assaults of the most heinous kind.  He even manages to steal, at one point, her unlocked phone and threatens to murder her contacts if she doesn't relent to him. 

So, okay, UNHINGED probably won't come off as authentic as a documentary, but so much of what happens in its screenplay strains even modest credulity.  The script by Carl Ellsworth (who wrote a thriller that I did admire in DISTURBIA) piles on one eye rolling plot development after another, many of which stem from The Man's ability to gain access to Rachel's phone and set up impromptu meet-ups with her friends and colleagues, one of which - in a truly gruesome sequence - manages to murder at a diner table in front of dozens of witnesses.  In the make-believe la la land that is the world of UNHINGED, no one takes a smart phone video of this incident, nor does there appear to be any law enforcement that are able to nab Crowe's serial killer after very public displays of bloodshed (he also makes few efforts to hide or conceal his identity).  It's at moments like this, and many more, where The Man just becomes an unthinking and sadistic slasher film killer...and not much else.  Crowe is indeed one of our greatest Oscar winning actors, but his performance here is so aggressively one note and head shakingly broad.  He has one highly limited emotional spectrum here: Angry.  When he's not angry, he gets more angry.  Crowe has the chops to play well rounded and developed villains, to be sure, but he's given nothing to work with here.  This is one of the most horribly undeveloped characters that he's ever been asked to play, and perhaps the more offensive aspect of it is why he even agreed to take the role in the first place...outside of a paycheck. 

One of the other issues with UNHINGED is that the chief victim here in Rachel is not particularly likeable as far as protagonists go.  That's not to justify the nightmarish horror show that she and her family suffers through here, but it's hard to sympathize with her early on because she's essentially established as a loser without any ambitions in life.  But, boy oh boy, she sure goes through the ringer during the course of this film, and the sight of a rather unhealthily rotund Crowe maliciously abusing this woman and her kids - and in highly graphic ways - frankly made me ill while watching it.  Perhaps UNHINGED would have worked better as a battle of wills thriller kind of akin to DUEL and showcased the in over her head Rachel trying to evade this madman on the road.  There are some decent stunts and set pieces to be had here, but Borte never finds a manner of making it all visually appealing or have much in the way of editorial clarity.   The film hurtles towards a pure hogwash climax that works in just about every mad stalker movie cliche in the proverbial books, and at this point it became clear that UNHINGED wasn't interested at all in developing its potentially complicated and wounded antagonist.  What a crying shame. 

There's so much that a movie like this being made today could have said about an angry lone male that feels stabbed in the back by setbacks who, in turn, believe that their only recourse is to stab back at society with unfiltered ruthlessness to purge unfulfilled desires.  And there have been good to great films about seemingly ordinary citizens slowly going nuts and healing their pains with violence (see FALLING DOWN or TAXI DRIVER), but UNHINGED has absolutely nothing to say about this, about toxic masculinity, about violence against women, about roadway violence, or about the ever thinning line between thinking about violence and actually committing it and feeling justified in it.  An awful lot of UNHINGED reminded me of the equally wretched DEATH WISH remake of a few years ago, another film that thought it was attentively observing mental health in wounded men and the burdensome nature of mass gun violence, but instead just fed us scene after scene of repellent vigilante killing that became more numbing by the minute.  UNHINGED wouldn't have been so offensive if it aimed for tawdry campiness and embraced its pulpy trashiness, but it takes itself as seriously as a heart attack, which is its ultimate undoing.  Unhealthily angry white men and their false feelings of being emasculated and disenfranchised in society is a legitimately dangerous modern trend, but UNHINGED isn't able in the slightest to delve into that in any meaningful way.  Again, it wants to be topical, but it discards that discourse early on to just serve up exploitative slaughter.  What a mindlessly off-putting film.  

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