Dir: Derrick Borte. Starring: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, and Austin P McKenzie. 15 cert, 93 mins
Unhinged opens with the sound of breathing – heavy and laboured, like a dragon slumbering deep underground. It belongs not to a creature, though, but to a man named Tom Hunter (Russell Crowe), who’s sitting in his parked car outside of a suburban home. He looks haggard, like he’s been emptied of his soul, as he strikes a match and silently watches it burn. Tom gets out, walks up to the front door, and caves it in with a hammer. Without pause, his target shifts from wood to flesh. He kills the man inside, then a woman, offscreen. We hear her screams. News reports later tell us that the woman was Tom’s ex-wife; the man was someone with whom she’d had an affair.
It’s a disquietingly familiar image of domestic violence – an affecting one, too. But the opening credits that follow belong to an entirely different story. Over ominous chords, written by composer David Buckley, we hear TV and radio announcers speak of all kinds of societal ills – narcissism, lawlessness, and directionless anger. We’re shown videos of people taking selfies, driving recklessly, and skirmishing in supermarkets. “People have so much coming at them, their brains can’t handle it,” an anchor declares, their tone appropriately apocalyptic.
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Unhinged is, in fact, a film about road rage. Its protagonist, Rachel (Caren Pistorius), has hit a personal rock bottom; she’s mid-divorce, without her salon, and can’t cover the costs of her ailing mother’s healthcare. And now, she’s slept through her alarm and risks making her son late for school (again) and missing an appointment with an important client. She’s not in the best of moods. While stuck in traffic, she rants about how there are too many cars and too many people.
When a car fails to accelerate at a green light, she honks her horn and speeds past it. In her eyes, this is garden-variety aggression – a daily part of any driver’s routine. The man in the other car has different ideas. It’s Tom, fresh from his opening scene rampage. He thinks Rachel can only truly atone for her rudeness by experiencing “what a bad day really is”. What follows is a very bad day, indeed. He chases her through side streets and motorways, waiting on an answer to his ultimatum. He’s going to kill someone she loves. Who does she pick?
Derrick Borte’s film is tense, slick, and finds just enough mildly ludicrous causes of death to earn its high-concept thriller credentials. But it’s impossible to watch a man pursue a strange woman, having brutally killed an ex-partner, and ignore the gendered nature of the threat on display here. Carl Ellsworth’s script certainly doesn’t side-step the subject. Tom fits the profile of the violent men’s rights activist to a tee, as he rants to Rachel’s divorce lawyer pal (Jimmi Simpson) about how he “f***s over decent men for a living”. And Crowe, with his southern drawl, weaves threats into every syllable. Tom is a man of crocodile smiles. It’s a surprising, but astonishing turn for an actor who forged his career on big-screen heroics. If Les Misérables (2012) offered him a chance to play the villain, Unhinged is his chance to play the monster – the Dark Universe, and his role as Jekyll and Hyde, now thankfully scuppered.
And yet, the film also thinks of Tom as a road rage bogeyman, sent from the abyss to teach Rachel a few lessons about driver’s etiquette. After all, Rachel is guilty of misplaced anger, too. But these are very different kinds of rage on display. One is universal – no matter the gender, race, or age. The other, so dangerous in its implications, comes only from a man’s embittered sense of entitlement. Unhinged acknowledges both, but finds itself torn between them.