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Movie Review: Unhinged

August 14, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

After exchanging some words at a traffic stop, a deranged man (Russell Crowe) makes it his mission to show a young mother named Rachel (Caren Pistorious) what “a bad day really is.”

This is the premise behind Unhinged, a road rage thriller from director Derick Borte which is one of the first big movies to be opening in theatres this week after months of lockdown. And you know what? It feels like a proper end of summer movie, the sort of thing that lends itself well to being watched in a cold, air conditioned theatre on an August afternoon.

Yes, Unhinged is essentially a pulpy B-movie, and no, it doesn’t really go beyond these modest ambitions. But it’s entertaining to watch and does deliver a fair bit of suspense, taking us on an often intense ride through the streets of New Orleans.

Rachel is a hairstylist in the midst of going through a divorce. She is running late to meet one of her clients and trying to drop her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) off at school, only to get stuck in traffic. When the grey pickup truck in front of her doesn’t move forward at a green light, she starts furiously honking her horn, but fails to give a “courtesy tap.” The driver, who remains unnamed throughout the film and is credited simply as “The Man,” starts following behind Rachel and her son, demanding an apology. When Rachel refuses to say sorry, he decides to “teach her a lesson” by making her day a living hell.

Crowe is very good in the film, eating up the role of an “unhinged” man who blames society for his own shortcomings, not unlike many of the mass killers who make headlines in real life. The actor is quite effective at portraying a villain whose eery calmness and demand for good manners make his violent actions all the more unsettling. Crowe’s character is an archetypal “grievance collector” who wants to make the world pay for how he has been treated. He doesn’t care if he dies, he just wants to leave his mark on the world.

This is not to say that the screenplay by Carl Ellsworth goes particularly deep into the psychology of its characters, but it is genuinely unsettling at times. A scene where Crowe’s character confronts Rachel’s friend and divorce lawyer Andy (Jimmi Simpson), complaining about how men like him get screwed over by women like her, is particularly disturbing for its real world relevance. Pistorious also does solid work in the role of Rachel, a woman who fights back and refuses to apologize, rather than simply being portrayed as a victim.

While obviously made in a pre-COVID world, Unhinged actually plays surprisingly well in the midst of the global pandemic. Over the opening credits, we are shown footage of violence erupting following road rage incidents with news commentary about how stress levels are at record highs, pushing people to their limits and society towards collapse. This really sets the stage for the insanity of what is to come.

Building with car chases and bursts of graphic violence, the film blossoms into a tense cat and mouse game, and the pulpiness of it all keeps it entertaining, even in its most over the top moments. At a lean ninety minutes including credits, the film moves fast and rarely lets up for a second. Overall, Unhinged provides decent summer entertainment, with a few moments that truly get under our skin.

Unhinged is opening today in select theatres across Canada, where it is safe to reopen. Please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by VVS Films.

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