Directed by Derrick Borte
Starring – Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman
The Plot – a psychological thriller that takes something we’ve all experienced; road rage, to an unpredictable and terrifying conclusion. Rachel (Pistorius) is running late getting to work when she crosses paths with a stranger (Crowe) at a traffic light. Soon, Rachel finds herself and everyone she loves the target of a man who feels invisible and is looking to make one last mark upon the world by teaching her a series of deadly lessons. What follows is a dangerous game of cat and mouse that proves you never know who you’re driving next to.
Rated R for strong violent content, and adult language throughout
– Rapid fire direction. I’m not familiar with Derrick Borte’s line of work as a director over the last fifteen years in Hollywood, my first sampling supplanted a hearty helping of anxiety and uneasiness that really drives the film in a direction where it can thrive by what is advertised. This starts automated editing that, while choppy in presentation, does a masterful job at resonating a feeling of intentional disjointedness that makes this day from hell feel otherworldly. In addition to this, Borte’s amplification for sound mixing is one that is not only very deserving of big screen audio enhancements, but also one that echoes the vibrations of the road cohesively, granting us an immersive quality into this world of chaos that thunders triumphantly towards a conceirto of carnage that feels inescapable. He conjures up a flare for the familiar that any of us can relate to, regardless of the level this eventually takes, and does so with such echoing inside of this ball of claustrophobia that helps overcome some of his shortcomings within the movie’s presentation.
– Timely and socially relevant. The last thing I expected from a roadside thriller was a collection of contemporary themes and 21st century relevance that brings forth a sort of cautionary tale for anyone paralyzed by the spontaneity of road rage. Toxic masculinity and misogyny are just two of the ingredients in this Molotov cocktail that boils to simmering levels of heat building from below, but overall it’s the vulnerability articulated around our lead protagonist, despite the fact that she feels safe in her four walls of tranquility that somehow (To her) keep her safe from the outside world. What audiences can take away from this is a lesson of sorts to refrain from going over the top when it comes to dealing with strangers who we have no shred of knowledge or understanding of, and to let temporary inconvenience slide in the grander picture. Similar to how “Jaws” kept people out of the water, or “Psycho” kept people out of the shower, “Unhinged” seems destined to keep people cautious at all times while driving, and takes a story that we would easily otherwise dismiss as fiction, and flesh it out in a way that supplants resonance hours after seeing it.
– Adrenaline pacing. At barely 80 minutes of storytelling screen time, “Unhinged” barely ever has time to slow down, let alone grind its gears in taking audiences out of their investment towards the picture. From the very beginning of the film, we get immediate backstory for Crowe’s character, as well as his reason for the logic he and the story takes us down. It’s the perfect introduction to the mayhem that follows, and sets a precedent of gritty material that only gets stronger the longer the film continues on. From there, 80% of the rest of the film takes place on the road, and nothing ever feels redundant or stale despite this one stage setting. Instead, screenwriter Carl Ellsworth continuously ratchets up the tension by increasing the stakes with each passing chase, giving way to a series of devilishly delicious action set pieces that dare you to take your eyes off of the screen. I was never bored or displaced in the least.
– Startling set pieces. While nothing terrifically original or stylistically exceptional, the action sequences in the film roar with the kind of weight and intensity that begs for the big screen, and display a variety of methods that make this antagonist a lethal threat. It helps that the budget seems to be spent accordingly on an endless array of automobiles that smash and crunch with rapid speed, but when you factor in the backdrop of Los Angeles to the equation, the stakes always feel immense, and requires the film to constantly step up its game to please an audience that are lured in easily with one of the more realistic first chase sequences that I’ve seen in cinema. Finally, the technical aspects that I previously mentioned instill extra emphasis to the devastation, which audibly narrates that many people suffered by this man’s madness, regardless if we see them doing so or not. It’s full of productional depth that I honestly wasn’t expecting, and accompanies Crowe in this 1-2 punch which neither ever relent.
– Hard-R material. The gritty circumstantial nature of the violence feels every bit personal as it does unapologetically grotesque, and the language in the dialogue feels very much like the classic roadside thrillers like “Falling Down” and “Joy Ride”, where vulgar language is used as a means of capturing the fear within the expressive personality of the protagonist. This makes the people in the story feel real, but beyond that allows the dialogue no barriers in what it is able to attain. This isn’t always the best for this film in particular because of the occasional nauseating cliche’d delivery from any 80’s or 90’s relative action film, but it’s my opinion that thrillers revolving around death can only be articulated when given free reign for what’s possible, and it’s all brought home with a final conflict that ends with some exceptional make-up and prosthetics work to document permanence in the form of some gratuitous wounds.
– Characterization balance. There’s a fine line that the movie toes in what it chooses to reveal about its characters, granting us reasons for their actions without sacrificing the mystique that makes their ambiguity their most dangerous feature. This is of course referring to Crowe’s stranger, a man whose own losses define the behavior that he has adopted and justified through brutality, but could also stand for Rachel, and how closely she resembles her opposition. Rachel’s own failures have brought forth a day that she too would love to easily forget, but fate has forced her to endure a man who is every bit the worst part of what she could be. That’s where Bateman’s importance comes in as a character, because I believe he is the barrier that divides these two sides, and always gives Rachel something to fight for, unlike Crowe’s cursed predicament, which has forced him to take the law into his own hands. He’s very much a man with nothing to lose, and no fears, as dangerous of an antagonist as anyone can endure.
– Crowe’s nest. The work by Pistorius and Bateman are certainly commendable, with the former excelling in a role with some thick dramatic chops despite the fact that her character in a lot of ways is one-dimensional. However, this is certainly Russell Crowe’s show, and one that delights this critic as his first villain role since my 1996 guilty pleasure “Virtuosity”. What’s so compelling about Crowe’s work here is that he never allows his performance to feel redundant despite him only having one emotion (Anger) at all times. In fact, Crowe’s most intense moments are the calm that wash over him, playing into the psychology that preserves an expansive intelligence to balance his physical presence. Crowe is certainly having a blast playing this character, and it shows with the raw energy that he deposits to his deliveries, feeling an almost sexual tingle from making others lives a living hell. It’s easily my favorite performance from him since “The Nice Guys”, and cements Russell’s versatility as an actor that allows him to master any role he chooses.
– Frantic camera work. The dizzying and sometimes ugly camera angles that stemmed from the movie’s cinematography resulted in some serious straining of cohesive storytelling that overcomplicates its execution. Most of the film’s shot compositions are done with a handheld rendering. This is understandable, as it helps to bottle the intensity in a way that moves within the beats of the story. However, there’s nothing appealing with the way these claustrophobic scenes are shot, which required me to seek focus each time their physicality in movements tested the clarity of what was depicted in picture. Some elements of immersive cinematography should be left on the experimental cutting room floor, or in this case not given a passenger seat to the confrontation we’re promised for the entirety of the film. It’s the lone element of the movie’s production that I found elementary, often trying to influence an element of anxiety that the film’s screenplay has already attained.
– Arduous soundtrack. It’s rare when I get critical about a movie’s soundtrack, but the choices made by the film’s music producers can’t escape this feeling of cheap shamelessness that comes across in the form of familiar tracks done by these overly emotional artists. The first is Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, a song that doesn’t fit into this movie lyrically or thematically to begin with, but made completely appalling with a screeching scream by the cover artist’s voice that sounded like what I imagine skinning cats to sound like. The next is Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’, a track that has been in no fewer than ten movies at this point, but one that at least brings relevancy to what’s taking place in the realm of the movie. The unfortunate aspect of this, however, is once again the covering artist, who has slowed down the track to be this pouty, emotionally void diatribe that ends the film on a down note moments after its biggest triumph. Emo covers are quickly becoming one of my least favorite cliches in cinema, and are the cheap way of mixing in a familiar track to a movie without paying the piper for big band royalties. This could be considered smart to save a buck, but to this critic it’s a painful reminder of musical producing’s greatest cinematic sin, and one that this movie commits on more than one occasion.
– Leaping logic. For a world that establishes realism both in its setting and its laws of gravity on the road, the boundaries by which the script takes through a few instances were met with audible groans for questions that simply can’t be answered. LIGHT SPOILERS Some of the illogical moments that I caught involved a police force that virtually doesn’t exist. Yes, there’s one scene involving a police shootout, but other than that brief instance the cops go unnoticed for the entirety of the picture, a fact made strange by a man who has already previously killed people in the same truck and license plate that he currently rides in. One scene involving a restaurant of patrons continuing to eat after Crowe violently and abruptly smashes a guy’s face on the table. Why aren’t they calling the cops? Why is no one getting up? Crowe doesn’t have a gun in the scene, so there’s no way they will be caught. Then there’s the emphasis of this being a traffic-heavy day, but when Crowe starts chasing the mother and son, it magically clears up. These all pale in comparison to a scene involving Crowe being given ten seconds to tape a tracking device under the driver side seat AND steal Rachel’s cell phone, all the while Bateman’s character is sitting in the passenger side backseat alive and awake. Why not just steal the kid? Believe me when I say there’s plenty more instances, but they involve bigger spoilers and headaches, and require your mind to not just be turned off, but entirely removed from your head.
My Grade – 7/10 or C+