Review: ‘Unhinged’ (2020) starring Russell Crowe

August 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Russell Crowe in “Unhinged” (Photo by Skip Bolden/Solstice Studios)

“Unhinged” (2020) 

Directed by Derrick Borte

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic action film “Unhinged” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A woman becomes the stalking target of a stranger who wants deadly revenge after they were involved in a road rage incident.

Culture Audience: “Unhinged” appeals primarily to people who like formulaic “stalking” movies that often have unrealistic and illogical scenes.

Caren Pistorius in “Unhinged” (Photo by Skip Bolden/Solstice Studios)

The dramatic action film “Unhinged” is the type of movie that wants people to turn off their logic and common sense and just go along for the chaotic and often-ludicrous ride of this story’s demented stalking. “Unhinged” could be considered a horror film, but the tone is more about being suspenseful than being scary. The way that “Unhinged” was made is as if it’s a Lifetime drama movie made for people who want manic, testosterone-fueled action with cars.

Directed by Derrick Borte and written by Carl Ellsworth, “Unhinged” shows right from the opening scene that the movie’s title describes the story’s villain. This deranged antagonist doesn’t have a name in the movie (although he uses the alias Tom Cooper later in the story), and he’s played by Russell Crowe, an Oscar-winning actor who should be doing higher-quality movies than this awful dreck. For the purposes of this review, we’ll call the villain Unhinged Man.

The movie begins with Unhinged Man parked outside a house on a quiet residential street on a rainy night in an unnamed U.S. city. (“Unhinged” was actually filmed in the New Orleans area.) He’s sitting in his pickup truck, he pops a pill, and then lights a match before the match extinguishes. He then takes a hammer, goes up to the house he’s been watching, and uses the hammer to break down the front door.

He then viciously murders a man and woman inside the house with the hammer while the house’s door is open. The murder victims can be heard screaming as they’re being attacked. After he kills them, he sets the house on fire before calmly driving away.

All of this loud mayhem would definitely get the neighbors’ attention in real life, but as Unhinged Man drives away, there are no signs of neighbors even knowing what just took place. No lights go on in the surrounding houses, no neighbors go outside or peek through their windows to see what’s happening. It’s the first sign that this movie is going to have some dumb scenes set up so that Unhinged Man can brazenly commit murder in front of numerous potential witnesses and get away with it for as long as possible.

During the movie’s opening credits, there’s a montage showing TV news footage or viral videos about how angry people are in America and how that rage is turning into random acts of violence. This montage is intended to get viewers in the state of mind that Unhinged Man is one of those people who will violently lash out at strangers, so whoever becomes his next target better watch out.

As for the people he murdered in that house, the movie never reveals who they are and why they were murdered. It’s one of many loose ends and plot holes in “Unhinged.” The identities of these murder victims seem to be kept deliberately anonymous as a metaphor for how anyone could be a target for Unhinged Man, and he can have very petty reasons for wanting to murder.

So who will be his next unlucky victim? It’s hair stylist Rachel (played by Caren Pistorius), who’s about to have a very bad day. (Most of the action in “Unhinged” takes place during a 24-hour period.) Rachel, who is in her 30s, is also going through some tough times. She’s in the middle of a contentious divorce that has reached a point where her estranged husband now wants to have the house where she lives with their son Kyle (played by Gabriel Bateman), who’s about 13 or 14 years old.

Also living in the house is Rachel’s younger brother Fred (played by Austin P. McKenzie), who’s in his early 20s and unemployed, but he says he has some great business ideas. In other words, he’s a freeloader. Fred has a girlfriend named Mary (played by Juliene Joyner), who might or might not live there too. The movie doesn’t make it clear where Mary lives, but she has a serious-enough relationship with Fred that she’s often at the house.

Rachel’s divorce lawyer Andy (played by Jimmi Simpson) happens to be her best friend, as he’s described later in the movie. One morning, before Rachel is about to drive Kyle to school, Andy calls to tell Rachel the bad news that her soon-to-be ex-husband Richard (who’s never seen on camera) is going to put up a big fight to get the house. Rachel is already running late for an appointment with her most important client Deborah Haskell (played by Anne Leighton), and she’s also in a rush to get Kyle to school.

Before they drive off, Rachel and Kyle debate on which route she should take to get him to school: Should they take the freeway or surface streets? Either way, they’re going to be in rush-hour traffic but they have to guess which might be the faster way. They take the freeway and run into a traffic jam, so Rachel decides to get off the freeway and drive on the streets.

These driving scenes have increasing tension, because during this car trip, Rachel gets two phone calls with bad news. Richard calls to let Kyle know that he has to cancel their upcoming father/son get-together for a sports game, because Richard just started a new job that is requiring him to do some work that conflicts with the game schedule. And then, Deborah calls Rachel in frustration over Rachel’s tardiness. Deborah tells Rachel that not only is she canceling the appointment but she’s also firing Rachel.

It’s during this phone call that Deborah mentions another setback that Rachel went through not too long ago: Rachel used to own her own hair salon, but she lost that business. The movie doesn’t reveal exactly when or why Rachel lost the salon, but this business failure is brought up as another example of how Rachel is under tremendous financial pressure. Losing her most important client has just made things worse.

Therefore, by the time Rachel encounters Unhinged Man, she’s feeling very stressed-out and anxious. While waiting at an intersection at a stoplight, she notices that the pickup truck in front of her won’t move after the light turns green. She loudly honks her horn, but the driver still won’t move. Finally, she decides to pass the truck and gives the driver a dirty look as she passes. The driver is Unhinged Man, of course.

Rachel hits another traffic jam on the streets, where she notices that Unhinged Man has followed her. He eventually drives up next to Rachel’s car, where Kyle (who’s in the back seat) has the window next to him rolled down. Fearing that she could be dealing with a nutjob, Rachel tells Kyle not to talk to the stranger. And it just so happens that when Kyle tries to close the window with the automatic button, there’s a malfunction and the window is stuck.

Unhinged Man has his window rolled down. He starts a conversation where he asks Rachel why she had to lean hard on her car horn instead of giving it a polite tap. She tells him that it was justified because he wouldn’t move while the light was green. Rachel also says that she’s in a hurry and she’s having a bad day. Unhinged Man then apologizes and asks Rachel to apologize too, but she refuses.

His demeanor then becomes menacing as he tells Rachel, “I don’t think you even know what a bad day is. But you’re going to find out. You’re going to fucking learn.”

And this heated exchange sets off the stalking and chase scenes in the movie, which includes numerous car crashes and some more people who end up murdered. The worst things about the movie are how many unrealistic things happen and how Rachel is written as a dimwit who makes horrible decisions.

For example, there’s a scene in the movie where Unhinged Man is chasing after Rachel while they’re in their cars. Rachel finds out that her phone is missing (for reasons that are shown in the movie), and she frantically tries to go through her purse to look for her phone while she’s driving. When she sees that her phone isn’t there, instead of going somewhere to get help and use a phone, she keeps driving.

There’s another scene where Unhinged Man goes after Rachel and he traps her in a packed fleet of cars that are locked in a traffic jam. Unhinged Man then acts like he’s at a monster truck derby and starts ramming cars. And yet, there’s no sign of people in any of the cars getting on their phones to call 911.

Unhinged Man also causes mayhem at a diner in another unrealistic scene. Unhinged Man just casually does what he does and stays too long in places where he knows that the cops are going to show up any minute. Let’s just say that the police take too long to arrive in many scenes in this movie.

And there’s another scene where after the cops show up, the people who were brutally attacked by Unhinged Man aren’t even taken to a hospital. The cops just take the report and then leave. The movie’s sloppy screenwriting also includes Rachel coming up with an illogical and unnecessary idea to lure Unhinged Man to the nursing home where her mother lives. Whether or not she goes through with the idea is shown in the movie.

But the biggest illogical thing about the movie is how, during all of this madness, Rachel doesn’t go to a police station. Instead, she wastes a lot of time making stupid decisions while she’s being chased by Unhinged Man. Crowe’s performance is almost campy, because there are some scenes where he literally growls as he gets angry. The rest of the cast don’t do anything particularly noteworthy in their roles, because their characters are written as fairly generic.

There are hints that Unhinged Man is someone with a troubled past. It’s revealed that he has problems holding on to a steady job (he was fired after just a month on his most recent job) and it’s implied that he went through a painful divorce. Based on how he reacts when he finds out that Rachel is in the middle of a divorce, it seems as if Unhinged Man felt he was the “victim” in his own divorce and he’s extremely bitter about it.

“Unhinged” essentially takes a trope that’s common for a Lifetime movie (a woman in peril) but with male rage given more weight in the story. The high-octane chase scenes and car crashes are meant to appeal to people who like “bang ’em up” action and don’t really care about the reasons for why this destruction is happening. Don’t expect to get a lot of insight into why these characters behave as illogically as they do. Viewers who get to the end of this movie will feel like they were trapped in a badly structured video game where only the chase scenes matter and the characters are as hollow and mindless as they can be.

Solstice Studios released “Unhinged” in U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.