They simply don’t make films like Unhinged anymore. I don’t say that as a good thing, and I don’t say it as a bad thing. After a significant downturn in the early 2000s (clearly the death of modern cinema), the low-to-mid budget horror thriller simply faded into obscurity. And while some directors like Adam Wingard have managed to bring them back on a much smaller scale, the subgenre that spawned everything from the original Halloween to Cape Fear simply doesn’t get greenlit. In fact, because of this, and in almost every way, the new Russell Crowe film feels like an artifact from a time gone by. But don’t let its aged setup fool you. For despite the occasional gilding of the lily and a mostly unnecessary (yet not unearned or mishandled) desire to add social context, Unhinged is the type of pulpy, schlocky horror film we’ve all been so desperate to enjoy.
Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius) has been having a tough time lately. She’s in the middle of a vicious divorce case, her mother is being moved into a nursing home, her brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) and his girlfriend Mary (Juliene Joyner) are living on her couch, and she’s under so much pressure, she can’t focus on her job as a stylist and is constantly at risk of getting fired. She’s so strung out, she can’t even get her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school on time most days. So when she gets stuck in traffic behind a zoned-out driver, it makes sense that she would vent her frustrations by aggressively honking her horn at him. Unfortunately for her, the driver of that truck is Tom Cooper (Crowe), a mentally unstable man who has recently begun a violent killing spree in light of his own personal troubles. And considering he sees so many of the ailments of society in Rachel, Tom makes it his mission to teach Rachel a lesson in how bad life can truly get: through mental manipulation, personal injury, and the murder of those closest to her.
There is a real desire by director Derrick Borte and writer Carl Ellsworth to make Unhinged about something. And while this can sometimes get in the way of the fun movie at its core (more on that in a minute), there are other moments where there’s actually a core of interesting commentary at its base. Crowe’s Tom Cooper (credited as “The Man,” not unlike Michael Myers is credited in Halloween as “The Shape”) is an inherently evil (yet not entirely unsympathetic) villain. In an era where white male rage has inspired a litany of shootings and terrorist acts in the last few years, including shootings in synagogues and Walmarts, the film acts as a sort of rebuttal to 1996’s Falling Down. In the obvious predecessor, Michael Douglas’ William Foster goes on a rampage through the streets of LA due to perceived “slights” against the middle-aged white man wronged by society. While the film never intentionally took his side, the lazy screenplay ultimately offered up a defense of a man shooting up a convenience store because the manager didn’t speak English. In Unhinged, it’s clear from the jump that we are not meant to side with Crowe’s sociopath. While his mental downfall is timely – after an injury at work left him laid off and addicted to his pain medication, he lost his wife and house in a divorce – the opening scene paints him as a homicidal monster. Hell, while road rage may be the inciting factor, the main reason Crowe’s Cooper is after protagonist Rachel is that he learns she’s also going through a divorce, and he sees her as an embodiment of the Evil Woman. The idea of a sociopathic middle-aged white man targeting someone who he perceives as the embodiment of all his issues in the world has a real timeliness in the modern era, and as he makes declarations while murdering people like “He’s a divorce lawyer! He f*cks over men like me for a living!” it becomes hard not to imagine Cooper playing Infowars through his car radio as he drives the streets of New Orleans.
And Cooper’s not the only one under stress. The entire film functions the way it does because every character feels broken down by the current state of society. Rachel’s terrible day begins after she wakes up late, gets stuck in traffic, and ends up being fired over the phone for being five minutes late because she’s a single mom. In the current gig economy where people hold onto jobs by a thread after the 2008 economic crash, and society has become more and more callous, her plight is easily sympathetic to the average viewer. Society as a whole seems to have become unfeeling – while the police take the Coopeer’s threat seriously, they never seem to take Rachel seriously, no matter how many times she calls them to explain precisely where he’s located at any given time. And if the film manages subtlety in any way, shape, or form, it can be found in the callousness of modern society as Cooper commits a monstrous act of violence inside a diner and nobody intervenes. Yes, this is mostly a tool to increase the tension, but I also see it as evidence of the cowardice of the modern American, who is more willing to let somebody else get killed if it means sparing their own life. I find this type of commentary works a lot better than the film’s central conceit: that road rage is the epitome of anger in this country. The film’s opening credits, preceded by a radio operator declaring, “Boy, seems like we’ve all got a case of the Mondays!” like an unironic Office Space, is set over a montage of real-life road rage incidents and, inexplicably, clashes between Neo-Nazis and Antifa. The film believes it is commenting on the seeping anger and division prevalent in today’s society, not unlike the aforementioned Falling Down. And while it’s not the most egregious level of real-world commentary I’ve ever seen, it’s hard not to look at that opening thesis statement and think “Is…is that their takeaway on the ailments of modern society? That’s so dumb.”
Thankfully, Derrick Borte has the good sense to ignore any attempt at proper analysis with Ellsworth’s script, realizing that underneath all that faux-intellectual gobbledygook, there is a fantastic pulpy horror at its core, that takes pleasure in its dumb, silly thrills and excellent tension. The film makes itself clear from the jump, as it takes more pleasure in setting up perfectly-staged establishing shots and clever foreshadowing to elicit thrills, as opposed to the usual jump-scare format. In fact, there is not a single jump scare in the entire film, Borte and Crowe take more pleasure in a well-delivered monologue or sharply edited sequence than a ridiculous boogeyman. For example, watch the scene at the gas station, where Cooper steals Rachel’s cell phone from her car. For a moment, the film threatens to overplay things, with Cooper overtly breaking into her car and stealing the device he would use to torment her. Instead, the film goes back to the days of Hitchcock: establish the cell phone sitting on the ledge of her car seat, then as she climbs back in, reveal the phone is gone. Sure, it goes on too long, and gilds the lily to a certain degree, but the fact the film shows such restraint is the perfect example of the fun scares on display.
Unhinged keeps its story moving along with a smart, strong three-act structure that delivers on all the promises to come. It establishes its psychotic main character through a gorgeous shot of a struck match burning down to his fingertips without any reaction. It sets up the conflict through the casual, yet ominous appearance of a previously mentioned grey pickup truck. Things (perhaps a bit haphazardly) mentioned in the first act come back as Chekov’s Gun in the third act. And this series of events is broken up by a series of well-choreographed low speed chases set to a fun, never-ceasing score. Even when the film veers towards being too dumb, like a major moment of tension arising when they realize “Oh my god, we don’t have a phone charger!” or they deliver confusingly bad moments of dialogue (the final line almost undercuts the whole movie), the film will just throw a hilarious, over-the-top scare at you or execute a perfect use of “(Don’t) Fear The Reaper” in order to redeem itself. This is a movie that invites you to turn your brain off with the promise of a good, fun time, and as long as it delivers, nothing else matters.
The other strength of the film is that it understands that suspense is stronger than gore. You’d think that a film called “Unhinged” about a psychotic mass murderer would be bloody, gory, and grotesque. But like the best thrillers before it, the film hides its most graphic moments inside a series of smart cuts, hidden angles, and implication. Take, for example, the opening scene, when the mentally broken Cooper breaks into a house (presumably his ex-wife and her new boyfriend’s) to brutally murder them with a hammer. This is a graphic scene, in theory – and yet, Borte never lingers on the bloodshed. In fact, he never even shows it. Unhinged realizes that violence is almost never as frightening as the fear of violence – not unlike Psycho or Halloween. It nails the execution of tension time and time again – one brutal assault is portrayed with nothing more than the realization the grey truck is not where the audience originally thought it was, followed by a muffled scream offscreen. There’s also a terrific moment where they reveal the looming threat of violence with nothing more than an aforementioned license plate with a light streak of blood across it. This is a film that realizes you don’t need to resort to jump scares and bloodletting to make for a great time – all you need is some solid edge-of-your-seat thrills. And when the does show the violence, it does so in an over-the-top, almost comical manner. One death almost amounts to “stop hitting yourself,” while another involves using a FLAMING HOSTAGE AS A BATTERING RAM. Now, I will say that not every scare or kill is effectively harmless or entertaining. There is a sequence during the climax where the innocent carnage count begins to grow excessive, and the film seems to actively take pleasure in punishing a girl for applying makeup while driving. But for the most part, Unhinged embraces a bloodless tension that not only makes the film feel refreshing – it ultimately makes it memorable.
In terms of the acting, this really isn’t the type of film that requires tour-du-force performances, but there are a few actors who stand out. Crowe, for example, gives this film the same effort he once gave that historic three-nomination run back in the early aughts. He uses his hulking frame as a weapon in and of itself – there’s nothing supernatural about him, but you believe he could crush a man with one punch just from the sheer weight of his being. There’s also a brilliant mixture of pain and insanity behind his eyes, and he can convey a great deal about this character with just a look. Caren Pistorius is mostly just hear as an empty vessel we can place our own frustrations and fears about society upon, but even is there’s not much to the character or performance, I will say she manages to cry and scream and fight effectively enough. I wish I could say the same for Gabriel Bateman as her son Kyle – Bateman is only a so-so child actor, and while he’s never actively bad, I’ve never seen him be good either. Perhaps he should branch out from horror – this is his fourth film in the genre before the age of 16, and he hasn’t been solid once. I appreciated Broadway actor Austin McKenzie as Fred – it’s a pretty thankless role, but he emotes fear well. But if the film has an MVP, it’s Jimmi Simpson as Rachel’s best friend and divorce lawyer Andy. Simpson is a great character actor, stealing any film he pops up in – and Unhinged is no exception. Easily the highlight of the film is the tense, creepy standoff between an oblivious Simpson and an unsettling Crowe – you just know something bad is going to happen, and both characters know it, it’s just a matter of what and when.
Unhinged is the type of good old-fashioned nonsensical fun that the summer movie season was built on. It undercuts the misguided desire to overdo the blood or violence by instead focusing on the tension, the acting, and the drama. I saw Unhinged at a drive-in at 9:00 pm on a Sunday, and quite frankly, that might be the perfect viewing scenario. It’s too small for a multiplex, yet too exciting for your home theatre. Locked in the cozy comfort of your car, watching a large screen and surrounded by (social distant) neighbors you know are screaming their little lungs out is precisely the experience you want for a film like this. It will let you get into the spirit, to throw away your common sense and nitpicking brain and just enjoy the ride that Derrick Borte and Russell Crowe have laid out for you.
Unhinged is currently playing at drive-ins across the country. While it is also playing in theatres in states where such facilities are open, The Sacred Wall strongly advises readers to avoid attending theatres unless in a state that has been given the “green light” by CDC statistics