Russell Crowe is going to save cinema! So goes the marketing push for road-rage thriller “Unhinged,” the first new film to open in theaters since lockdown. Yet it’s worth acknowledging that Crowe hasn’t exactly saved cinema in the past decade, where “Les Misérables,” “The Water Diviner” and “The Nice Guys” are the only moderate highlights. To buy into the hype around “Unhinged,” one has to accept the cult of Crowe and pretend that he’s still a relevant movie star, to pretend it’s no later than 2003’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and Crowe remains a gladiator of cinema.
But even that mind game can’t rescue the lazy B-movie routine of this cheap entertainment from director Derrick Borte, which could be generously described as an homage to Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down” by way of Steven Spielberg’s “Duel.”
“Unhinged” is the story of a man — conveniently credited as The Man, although at one point he claims to be called Tom Cooper — who’s clearly upset, as a pre-credit sequence makes clear, about his recent divorce. Eventually, he decides to take that frustration out on a hapless victim, and yes, that’s the whole movie.
It starts simply enough: The Man is sitting in his stationary car, the rain lashing down, the windshield wipers squishing back and forth. He tears off his wedding ring and lights a match. The proverbial fuse has been lit — but “Unhinged” doesn’t waste time on its blunt metaphors. In a brutal long take, the Man exits his car and takes out his anger on a houseful of occupants with a hammer. It might be the most disturbing cinematic gesture since S. Craig Zahler’s “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” but that grisly movie looks downright subtle by comparison.
From there, “Unhinged” plays like a trailer for its own one-note premise, with footage of cars veering into each other and supermarket brawls to set the scene. People are angry! The credits go on and on, the rage bludgeoned into our senses, and described by radio hosts in vague terms. Somehow, this quasi-documentary scene-setting ends up as the highlight of the movie, because everything that follows is a misogynistic mess.
Yes, “Unhinged” relies upon the threat of violence against women for tension. If that wasn’t bad enough, the film also suggests that some women might just deserve it because they’re bad mothers who wake up late when they need to take their son to school, fail to keep on top of work, and are indignant when powerful men try to tell them how they should behave.
Enter Rachel (Caren Pistorius), who wakes up on the sofa next to her book: “How to Help Your Child Cope with Divorce.” Rounding off her backstory, her lawyer calls to let her know her ex-husband wants half of her house. As she takes her son to work, they wind up in a series of gnarly traffic jams before getting caught behind an SUV filmed to look like an evil monster truck. The traffic lights change; the SUV doesn’t budge. Rachel beeps her horn — and The Man pulls up alongside her car, deeply offended and ready to unleash more violence on a helpless target. Premise complete.
The rest of “Unhinged” unfolds as a vile series of inhumane violence committed by The Man against his newfound scapegoat — not to mention anyone supporting Rachel, her lawyer, her brother, and even a good Samaritan at a gas station. The hunt is facilitated by a ludicrous bit of exposition as to why she doesn’t use a password on her cell phone, as The Man decries how men get mistreated in divorce proceedings, and the movie seems oddly sympathetic to that plight — much more than the ostensible hero of the scenario, who mostly just looks frightened throughout.
For a film so reliant on the telephone, it’s probably not a surprise that Crowe dials in his performance. Dressed heavy-set, Crowe is all grimaces and frowns in disgust at everything around him. His only emotional note is all ANGRY, resulting in a parody of his own performances. It’s Crowe on overdrive, and it’s horrible.
Setting aside the hype, should we have expected more? “Unhinged” falls back on a reliable trope: Spielberg showed in “Duel” and Robert Harmon in “The Hitcher” that crazed drivers can deliver exhilaration in movies full of twists and turns. While “Unhinged” has a few solid jolts (explosions, mostly) and a couple of unexpected plot twists, it often plays like an empty attempt to up the ante: Who will The Man kill next? It’s hard to get onboard a movie that revels in such outrageous violence yet offers little insights beyond the redundant tantrums of a really bad guy.
Borte’s CV contains a list of movies you will be thankful not to have seen. The best of the bunch, his 2009 effort “The Joneses,” starred Demi Moore and David Duchovny as actors pretending to have a perfect marriage so they can sell high-end products to all the miserable couples living in suburbia. He then made several films that struggled to find an audience (anyone remember 2015’s “H8RZ”?). Borte’s 2018 “American Dreamer” is in many ways a dress rehearsal for “Unhinged,” telling the story of a respectful man who loses his job, and ultimately after a stint as a taxi driver, respect for himself. This time, it provides an excuse to repeat the same idea over and over again, grasping hopelessly for substance.
“Unhinged” is all the more infuriating because of the moment of its arrival, in a nearly empty release calendar that demands more movies to prove their worth. Many of us are desperate for the return of communal moviegoing experiences. But “Unhinged” plays less like an attempt to save the cinema than to burn it all down.
“Unhinged” opens Friday, July 31 in the UK and Friday, August 21 in the U.S.