[su_dropcap size=”5″]I[/su_dropcap] can still remember the nastiest brawl I ever witnessed. It was in the middle school cafeteria: Two girls plucked off their earrings, tossed down their backpacks, and engaged in a frenzied Tyson-Holyfield melee. Obscenities flew, as did tufts of hair. I was simultaneously appalled and fascinated, two words that also sum up my thoughts on Unhinged. This is a visceral, mean little thriller, custom-made for these sour, batshit crazy times. It hurtles along at breakneck speed, thrashing the audience from one grisly experience to the next. And, much like watching two trashy preteens wrasslin’ on the linoleum, Unhinged just might compel you to keep watching with guilty fascination. It’s well-made and well-acted. I’m just not sure it’s, you know, entertaining.
The script feeds you a kibble of exposition, then barrels off into one long, violent chase sequence. Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is a young woman left staggered by an impending divorce. Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), her precocious young son, is also trying to regain his emotional footing. The movie begins with these two fumbling through traffic on the way to school. Somewhere on this harried journey, Rachel races up to a pickup idling at a green light. She leans on the horn, shouts a few generic insults, and speeds around him.
Little does Rachel realize that the driver of this rig (Russell Crowe) is one of those movie supervillains who’s always ultra-creepy and two chess-moves ahead. At the next light, he pulls up to Rachel and they jaw a little more. He goes into Cape Fear mode and informs her that she doesn’t know what a bad day is………but she will! Basically, that means this dude is about to do to her life what a toddler does to a smash cake.
From here, the Man–I swear, that’s what the movie calls him–proceeds to stalk and taunt Rachel, stealing her phone and threatening her loved ones. This leads to charged scenes of escalating gore, building to a loopy, over-the-top finale. If you’ve seen Duel, Falling Down, Breakdown, and a dozen other movies that Unhinged riffs on, you’ll be able to figure things out pretty easily.
For all the time the movie spends on Rachel and her son, its centerpiece is clearly the Man. He’s a strange hybrid of the emotionally wounded Charles Bronson Death Wish vigilante and the unconscionable thugs who hunt him down. He’s also a paunchy, two-fisted incarnation of Howard Beale’s “popular rage.” Marginalized by ex-wives, divorce lawyers, and the media, the Man erupts into a pyroclastic cloud of overheated hate: He’s mad as Hell, and he’s not going to take this anymore.
That hate gives Unhinged its unholy fire: The opening credits are dedicated to footage of road rage, interspersed with dialogue snippets about how people are getting nastier to each other. As a result, the action scenes are surprisingly propulsive and passionate–desperate attempts by a marginalized man to have his fury felt by an uncaring world.
And there’s the rub: Unhinged is an exciting movie. Hell, watching those girls go Jerry Springer in the lunch line was a jaw-dropping experience. It was also a seedy, unpleasant moment, one that made me feel like a rubbernecker for staring. Russell Crowe makes a damn good villain. Probably better than this material deserves. I couldn’t look away from him. I kinda wanted to, though.
93 min. R.