In this streaming afterscape, in which “Oscar bait” no longer defines anything—in which all movies are VOD and all VOD are movies, this ouroboros of capitalism offering us the world inside our homes as long as we accept that genre and pretenses of independence are obsolete—Unhinged is a movie that we might’ve once described as of the kind “they” just don’t make anymore, but is now all “they” will ever make, designated not by the money a filmmaker doesn’t have but by how much they’re willing not to spend. What this practically means for most of us? We receive Russell Crowe (former A-list actor and Oscar winner, current damp tree trunk), huffing and gurning his wet way through a Men’s Rights Activist murder spree, as a small blessing. This means nothing but that nothing matters to us. Nothing matters. The world is a vampire; we take what we can get.
Appropriate, then, that director Derrick Borte positions Unhinged as a commentary on the stress and anxiety—bound to push anyone over the edge on any given day—society heaps upon us just for refusing to stay in bed each morning. A rain-drenched cold open introduces us both to The Man (Crowe) and The Man’s preternaturally clammy patina as he sits in his giant gray truck outside a nice suburban home, downs a few pills, then marches through the downpour to crack open the front door with an axe. He kills the two inhabitants who rush to the door in their jammies, then burns the house down after dousing it in gasoline. He returns to his truck and calmly drives away, siren sounds eeking into frame as the house explodes, The Man’s dead eyes undergirded by legendary trenches made deeper by the night’s fire.
If the mundane cruelty of the scene wasn’t clear enough, Unhinged’s title sequence clips various viral videos and local news-sounding bytes demonstrating the unadulterated perversity of a civilization ground into capitalist meat, road rage and fist fights and violent protests, oh my. It’s all pretty graceless, though Borte is not one to dance with nuance: He introduces beleaguered, newly single mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius) waking to a call from her lawyer (Jimmi Simpson) reminding her that her deadbeat ex is trying to take “the house” in their neverending divorce proceedings. Working from a script by hired hand Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye and Disturbia and similar late-2000s thriller fare, the aforementioned kinds of movies “they” just don’t make anymore), Borte’s storytelling economy impressively gets us out the door of the house Rachel’s ex-husband wants in a hurry, all while giving us a sufficient rundown of Rachel’s family situation: Her precocious teen son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) and her mooch brother (Austin P. McKenzie) and her mooch brother’s cute hippie girlfriend (Juliene Joyner, who has nothing to do but inevitably play a corpse) are all living under one roof, adding to the financial burden of needing to keep her flailing salon business afloat while moving her ailing mother to a care facility. Not to mention that Rachel is late yet again for her appointment with a big client, her bad day a microcosm of a relentlessly overwhelming life that’s only getting worse.
In a minor traffic infraction, Rachel of course runs afoul of The Man, still consumed by the double-homicide he’d committed earlier that morning. The incident escalates as one might expect: Rachel refuses to apologize for honking a bit too aggressively at the Man, implying he ought to roll up his window and mind his own goddamn business, and The Man refuses to let Rachel get away without apologizing, still filled with white-hot resentment at the women (his ex-wife among the murdered that morning) who have made America so unaccommodating to struggling dudes’ dudes like himself. In front of a panicking Kyle, The Man vows to make Rachel understand what a “bad day” can really be. Cue cascading horrors for the working mom.
Unhinged proceeds accordingly, The Man’s vow turning brazen as Rachel’s morning goes on and the bodies pile up in her wake. A man tries to help her at a gas station, her lawyer tries to meet up with her to talk over the divorce—The Man punishes these people for simply doing what they assume is, in the most casual way, right, Borte’s bleakest fears finding room to roost inside an exploitation aesthetic. The violence gets grimy, punctuated by car chases throughout New Orleans, curbing from Duel as much as The French Connection, terror mounting as Rachel, despite the public watching this all happen on the news and The Man admitting that suicide-by-cop is probably the fate toward which he ineluctably drives, realizes she’s trapped. Borte wields tension reliably, cinematographer Brandan Galvin keeping us aware of the geography of these high-speed altercations, the occasionally brutal automobile wreck or highway cop slaughter (one in particular is worth the price for rental alone) satisfying rewards for our attention, none of it particularly imaginative, but all of it particularly effective. One might compare it to Falling Down for MAGA chunkheads, or one might not even bother with pulling out salient commentary from all the pulp. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. This will end on a delightfully Schwarzeneggarian one-liner.
The film’s real weapon is Russell Crowe’s body, a Sisyphean boulder of flesh. A certifiable chode. Playing a formative frontier father figure in Jed Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang earlier this year, Crowe at this stage in his career, long past the point of embodying manly leading sexpot, represents an immovable physical force, chthonic and unknowable, the buffalo buffalo buffaloing his way through the End of History. Borte never feigns any actual exploration of The Man’s Alex Jones-like psyche, nor any interest in figuring out how these kinds of broken bros tick. He only insists on bearing witness to the violence, not examining the institutions that condone it. Rather than offer Rachel—a woman defined by trauma—a future in which she may eventually confront the misogynist terror that will undoubtedly haunt her for the rest of her life, he asks her to, y’know, maybe not honk at other drivers so much? We’ll take what we can get. Better to be safe than sorry.
Director: Derrick Borte
Writer: Carl Ellsworth
Starring: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Jimmi Simpson, Gabriel Bateman, Austin P. McKenzie
Release Date: August 21, 2020
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.