Directed by Derrick Borte, written by Carl Ellsworth and produced by Lisa Ellzey, Unhinged stars Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius and takes an outwardly innocuous moment and turns it into pure bedlam. This is the story of a very bad day for both lead characters, but while one is trying to survive, the other is trying to stop life itself.
Any film that starts at 4am in the rain, let alone with a drugged Russell Crowe, who’s smashing into a house with a hammer, without any explanation and then turns to violence and explosions, well, rapidly puts you on edge and that’s maybe an understatement… Terrifyingly captivating? Certainly. Unhinged? Absolutely.
After that initial opening, we meet Rachel (Pistorius), an ordinary woman who’s struggling to get through the day-to-day. We see her looking after her family, taking her son (Gabriel Bateman) to school, over-sleeping and already on the catch-up from the minute the day begins. The trouble is that this time her stress isn’t as bad as Crowe’s ‘Man’ and after leaning on her car horn at a junction (she should have done a courtesy tap), because the car in front isn’t moving on a green light, she’s already triggered the wrong guy for her mild road rage, and unbeknown to her, his is already beyond repair. The situation escalates after Rachel refuses to apologise to him, after he asks her to but doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong. We witness them shouting window to window in a traffic jam, and Rachel is unknowingly throwing fuel on a low-burning, soon-to-be uncontrollable fire.
Things don’t mess around in Unhinged. While Rachel gets her son to school and think it’s all over, he turns up in his truck after she stops at a garage to fill up with petrol. How mad is he? Well, initially it’s hard to tell but he’s breathing pretty heavily and when a stranger tries to help and stop him following her, let’s say it doesn’t go too well. From here, there’s an almost endless deranged cat and mouse chase across the city. There will be vicious deaths, absolute carnage, and a fight for her life, all because the evil of one man cannot be controlled.
Borte’s film has some genuinely disturbing moments of violence. Most of it is committed against people in Rachel’s life (including a shock-inducing scene with Jimmi Simpson), who are tracked down after he steals her phone at that uneasy garage meeting. Whether this bloodshed is reasonable isn’t really a question because it isn’t, but the rage in Crowe’s character has been sparked by being let down, or lied to, in his life and his humanity becomes irrelevant, which shown to us at the start of the film. It’s just Rachel was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
His film also opens with a montage about descending anarchy in the USA, noting American instability and the rise of irrational anger that plagues much of society. This alludes to people who think they deserve the ‘American Dream’ but don’t get it, and so take it out on whoever they can with cruelty. There are also nods to social media driving this aggression and the worrying thing is… we all know some of this is true. We’ve seen it, especially during the rise of misinformation and political divide. The truth is, and this makes it even more horrific, that Crowe’s character could be anyone. Pistorius’ Rachel could be you, just having a bad day and choosing the wrong person to bite back at.
For me, Unhinged was like a real-life Scream. It had similar themes of intense unknown and a constant fear of attack. While this film isn’t the same disconnected fun, it doesn’t make it any less potent. I know Midsommar’s Ari Aster wanted to make a daylight horror, but this is another version. In some places, it’s so appalling that it feels so real, and this is its strength, in a messed-up way. Because this is classed as a thriller, over a horror, you take away the classic tropes and believe that anything is conceivable, and that’s scarier than anything.
With practical crashes and effects that make it brutally authentic, and an unrelenting performance from Russell Crowe with more than a hint of Jack Nicholson (once he’s on a spree in The Shining), this is a film you can’t stop watching. He’s intense and terrifyingly sublime, completely devoid of compassion, and there’s not a second where you think you could reason with this guy. Caren Pistorius is also superb, from a messy homelife to simple things, she has an arc that builds from no control, to taking it back, even if it’s insane, and shows us where people get pushed to. You’ll see her character rebuild and her strength grow, even against the greatest odds. You really fight for her along the way.
Unhinged might not be the easiest film to like but much like Midsommar, you’ll keep watching, find it hard to shake afterwards and hopefully make you reconsider how you speak to strangers…
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