[Review] Russell Crowe road-rager ‘UNHINGED crashes into theaters, but is it the right vehicle for audiences?

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

Rated R, 90 minutes
Director: Derrick Borte
Cast: Russell CroweCaren Pistorius, Gabriel BatemanJimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie, and Juliene Joyner

It’s finally happening. The theatrical experience is back again in the United States. I’m going to refrain from writing a public service announcement on if it’s a good idea for people to be going to the movies as a means to decompress from the “Great Dumpster Fire of 2020.” A better prelude is to begin with simple facts I know to be true. Film is art. Film is entertainment. Film is love. The theater may be like going to church, somewhere to congregate and enjoy a shared experience, but watching alone isn’t bad either.

UNHINGED, the first production from Solstice Studios, has had an interesting release history. Originally, it was announced to be a late Summer release. Then it was pushed back to September 4. (This was way before COVID-19.) The studio made a bold move to jump to July 1, while major studios threw darts at the release calendar on where to move. Smaller films went to VOD or streaming platforms, bigger ones moved back a few months, or their opening dates were labeled as TBA. After a series of pandemic-delayed release dates, now arrives the movie that will resurrect the movie industry. At least that’s how it’s been hyped.

Hype – more like ironic. Ironic because, for months, people have been cooped up indoors, asked to obey certain health protocols, and do their part in flattening the curve of contracting the Coronavirus. Their reward is a B-level road-rage thriller with an A-list lead that blows a fuse and sets out to make one woman’s life as miserable as his — quite a strange way to venture out and relax.

Oddly, UNHINGED is the perfect test. It’s simple and no-frills. Cannon Films churned these types of movies out in the 1980s by the dozens. Have a big name attached to get funding from foreign investors, and you’re all set.

The big-name is Russell Crowe, an Academy Award winner whose career has had quite the trajectory after breaking out as Officer Bud White in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. He’s starred in multiple Oscar-nominated films, played Superman’s dad, worked with Wu-Tang’s RZA in THE MAN WITH IRON FISTS, and even transitioned to the small screen to play the founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, in THE LOUDEST VOICE.

In UNHINGED, he is a man with no name. Simply credited as “The Man,” Crowe is at that Peter Finch moment when he’s mad as hell. But he doesn’t shout it from the top of his lungs. His introduction is him stewing in his truck outside a suburban home with a posted for sale sign. He rifles through prescriptions and pops a pill before twisting off his wedding ring. He leaves the truck idling as he causes havoc to those inside before driving off with the house ablaze.

Crowe doesn’t speak a word that opening scene, and I was half-convinced that he might not utter a single word for the entire movie. As the metaphor for white male rage, the opening scene tells us all we need to know about “The Man.”

More difficult is Rachel (Caren Pistorius). Her story is piecemeal. She’s a hairdresser and newly separated – both revealed while talking on her cell. Rachel’s time management skills are poor; she oversleeps and scrambles to get her son, Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), who is already dressed and had breakfast, to school on time. Taking side streets to chancing it on the highway before running into a bottleneck, Rachel’s decision to find the nearest exit starts a deadly chain of events. The first is honking at the pickup truck that fails to move when the light turns green. She honks again, and again, before quickly driving around.

Poor Rachel doesn’t know what we do. Crowe is the nameless man behind the wheel, and Rachel’s bad morning just got a whole lot worse.

Crowe coils like a rattlesnake, methodically tormenting Rachel before striking. While his level of deception is out of character (he steals her phone at a gas pump), The Man’s dead-set commitment makes her life just as miserable as his goes unnoticed.

But aside from a diner scene of impregnating doom before bedlam, the reactionary violence is not very gripping. Rage doesn’t need subtly to be convincing. Nor does the reason behind it. The jarring sound of a car horn. That’s all it takes — a simple catalyst for a lean B-movie that does less veering than commuters shooting down the highway.

Carl Ellsworth, who penned the Wes Craven thriller RED EYE some 15 years ago, supplies a screenplay that fails to thrill or do much to make us care about Rachel and her precarious predicament. A story mired with clunky dialogue, a heroine who has seemingly never been spooked or seen stories of road rage before, and leaps of logic wider than the Mississippi (like why couldn’t the son take the bus to school?), and you are left with something not worth crowing about.

That’s a shame, too. For UNHINGED is Crowe being froth and furious, as he brandishes a malevolent gravitas in welcoming us back to the movies.

Grade: C-

UNHINGED is now playing in theaters.

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