Opening on a rainy night, a imposing 4×4 sits outside a house as the man inside it works up the courage to do something that deep down he knows he shouldn’t but really wants to. It’s all very Shawshank but instead of turning around, going home and sobering up, The Man (Russel Crowe) pops a few pills and embraces his descent into madness. It might just be Unhinged best moment, one that isn’t oversold, needlessly pulpy or exploited for all its worth. It says in simple terms that this is the walking definition of toxic masculinity, a monster who is just as pitiful as he is barbarous. Director Derrick Borte’s film zooms into its characters inadequacies until it decides to settle into its B movie, thriller trappings and forgets about its characters.
Designed as almost an alternative to a buddy comedy, Unhinged follows single mother Rachel (Caren Pistorius) who is just trying to keep her head above water while covering for a deadbeat ex, her intelligent yet strangely judgemental son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) and her exploitative brother. When she sets out in the morning, she isn’t in the mood for any surprises and when a brief moment of road rage turns into a chase around New Orleans, she gets exactly what she didn’t want and then some. This isn’t your conventional coming of age road movie, this is Falling Down without the biting satire, with a little Duel thrown in for good measure.
While Borte knows how to instill a sense of terror in a breakneck paced picture it often comes at the expense of functionality. While Rachel is an easy to follow and understand lead she is constantly harassed from afar, the threat only really exists as the film reaches its conclusion. Strung together through a sequence of painfully extended phone calls, its only The Man’s horrific deeds, ones shot in vivid detail, sometimes gruesomely so that keeps this vehicle from careening off the highway. The clumsy dialogue, although menacing never quite sounds right. The bravado of a man saying he is fine with dying by ‘suicide by cop’ might read well on paper but it betrays the arrogance of Crowe’s character.
The Man over the course of the films slim runtime grows progressively more bold, but there is something always not quite right about him. At times this adds to the distressing nature that builds from the many unanswered questions surrounding his actions but more often that not it highlights a script that doesn’t know where it wants to end up, just a cliff notes version of an ending. Despite all this though, the full frontal violence, grimy look of the film and a physically imposing performance by Crowe plaster over the holes in this middle of the road thriller that starts roaring out the gates then stalls frequently after that.
Despite never being excessive, Unhinged is full of unexpected payoffs where moments of raised stakes fizzle out only to sneak up on you. Most will point towards the films diner scene as both the best and worst moment of a film happy to fill both roles but its the films opening chase scene, one where Rachel gets lost in a concrete jungle of side streets in her attempts to escape her tormentor that plays to Borte’s strengths. Visually impressive and constantly stopping and starting, this is adrenaline fueled mayhem at its best.
It’s only in Unhinged’s dry and momentum-less ending that everything unravels as The Man is taken from pathetic but dangerous to just plain deranged (think what happens to Jon Voight in Anaconda minus the dumb accent and massive snake). Despite finding some common ground between these two through their problems, the effects of others manipulations, in the end this menace is just a man, one who is denigrated to being a few cards shy of a full deck.
Despite being an enjoyable and visually impressive horror with all the trappings of a psychological thriller, Unhinged never reaches the highs of Falling Down and Crowe despite a great performance can’t quite match the quiet depression of Michael Douglas that makes his movie so unsettling. While it might think the cheap thrills are the answer to entertaining an audience, it does so at the expense of a story that isn’t all there in the first place. If it’s shooting for mindless, it nailed it.