Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 24, 2020)
If nothing else, 2020’s Unhinged will go down as the answer to a trivia question: what movie became the first to receive wide distribution after theaters reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic? Given various limitations, Unhinged only made it to 1823 screens, a fraction of the 4000-ish a big release would get, but it marked a push toward normalcy, at least.
Moviegoers seem unlikely to recall Unhinged for any reasons beyond this historical footnote, however. A thoroughly mediocre thriller, nothing about the film stands out as memorable.
In the midst of a divorce, Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius) finds herself stressed out due to a variety of factors. As she drives adolescent son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school, she gets stuck behind a pickup at a light.
When the light turns green, the truck doesn’t move, so Rachel lays on the horn. This turns out to be a bad move.
Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe) drives the truck, and his own personal struggles push him over the mental edge. Tom reacts negatively to what he perceives as Rachel’s rudeness, and her refusal to share a mutual apology triggers his rage.
This sends Rachel on a violent odyssey, as Tom decides to “teach her a lesson” about what it’s like to have a really bad day. Rachel deals with multiple threats as she attempts to simply stay alive against the danger presented by this maniac.
Going into Unhinged, I figured it would offer a 21st century riff on 1993’s Falling Down, another picture about a middle-aged man pushed over the edge by society’s offenses. While I do see some links between the two, Down painted a less psychotic lead.
Down’s Bill Foster offered a fairly average guy who just cracked after too many indignities. On the other hand, Tom presents as a nut from literally the first time we see him. If he ever held a grasp on sanity, it evaporated before the movie’s start.
This seems like a mistake to me, as we might dig into the story better if Tom came across as more sympathetic. As it stands, we get hints that something happened to his marriage but this remains undeveloped.
As such, Tom becomes little more than a basic movie monster. The film fails to depict him in a way that makes him more of a match to Halloween’s relentless Michael Myers than an “every man” like Down’s Foster.
Although I see some of those connections to Down, Unhinged prefers to offer more of a standard horror movie, and its most obvious forebear comes from 1971’s Duel. Both deal with protagonists stalked by maniacs who suffer from serious road rage.
Duel differs in that it never reveals the villain, so we don’t get to know the antagonist like we deal with Tom. Still, I must believe those behind Unhinged saw Duel many times, as the similarities seem too abundant to ignore.
Derivative as it may be, Unhinged manages a pretty decent sense of tension for its first act. While it doesn’t build any of the characters all that well in this period, it nonetheless manages to set up the situations efficiently, and once Tom starts on his mission, the film feels fairly scary.
However, in its quest to make Tom a traditional horror monster, Unhinged goes too far. As the film progresses, Tom starts to feel more like some unkillable machine and less like a human.
In addition, the situations start to make less sense. The viewer needs to suspend too much disbelief, and eyes begin to roll due to the idiocy we see.
Of course, we know we need to swallow stretches of unreality to enjoy a tale such as this. However, Unhinged simply takes these too far into Stupidville, and the end product suffers.
As Tom, Crowe doesn’t elevate the part, but he gives the role a bit of weary substance. I feel concerned about his weight, though, and hope the now-enormous Crowe packed on pounds for the part, as he looks like he pushes three bills here.
Pistorius does fine as Rachel – except for her age. The 29-year-old actor seems far too young to play the mother of an adolescent, and it never makes much sense to swallow her in this part.
Bizarrely, Unhinged casts Austin P. McKenzie as Rachel’s brother Fred. 26 years old during the production, he looks 19, and this creates a distraction where none should exist. Couldn’t the producers find actors in their 30s to play Rachel and Fred?
Even without those issues, Unhinged becomes a wholly mediocre effort. Though it occasionally provides gritty tension, the movie too often comes across as silly and derivative.
Footnote: Unhinged only credits Crowe as “Man”, though we hear him called “Tom Cooper” during the film. I don’t know if that means “Tom Cooper” isn’t his real name or if the filmmakers just went all meta for the credits. They also call him “Man” during the disc’s commentary.
Footnote Two: during said commentary, the filmmakers reference Duel as an influence, but they also mention Jaws, which makes less sense. Or did I miss the “Land Shark” scenes where Bruce left the ocean and stalked Sheriff Brody?