Unhinged‘s marketing has touted the movie repeatedly as the reason to return to theaters. I’m telling you right now, it’s not. But, that’s an uphill climb no movie should have to face. The discussion of when, or even if, to return theaters is an ongoing one that sparks heated debate and one that I will not address in this review. Instead, I will be taking Unhinged on its own terms. Its own seedy, deeply unpleasant, but shockingly effective, terms.
Directed by Derrick Borte (The Joneses), Unhinged is a mean movie, focusing on a single mother who finds herself in the sights of the mentally unstable Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe), who will stop at nothing to give her the worst day of her life. And what’s the terrible crime that earns Rachel (Caren Pistorius) the ire of Cooper? Not apologizing to him for honking her horn at him. That’s it. It’s unclear what Borte and screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye, Disturbia) want to say about society, but it’s clearly something.
The opening credits montage of Unhinged hammers home a sense of unrest. David Buckley’s unsettling score underlines scenes of protests, robbery, police brutality, fires – everything that we’re inundated with on American news media. It’s deeply familiar imagery and its main takeaway is “everyone’s angry these days”. That anger is all that these filmmakers get from everything going on in the country is deeply disappointing considering that the lead character is a woman in a bad financial situation. There had to have been some commentary there, and there definitely should be more to Cooper.
Cooper is as “unhinged” as they come. For no reason other than a vague explanation about a divorce from his wife, Cooper spouts misanthropic comments that become increasingly misogynistic. They are so close to saying something, anything, with this character, but Unhinged just fails as a social commentary altogether. To my surprise, though, Unhinged really does work as an old-fashioned scary movie. This all starts, once again, with Tom Cooper.
The overweight and disheveled Crowe makes him into a monster who wreaks havoc on the unfortunate souls who come into his path. He plays the part with no irony, and in turn makes Cooper into something akin to the modern Bogeyman of America: an enraged, mediocre man killing for no real reason. Although the commentary itself is non-existent, the imagery is certainly coded. It’s very possible that there will be sharp critics of the premise of an angry white guy hunting down a woman for a perceived slight. Rightfully so, it’s a queasy concept. But it’s also very scary.
And Unhinged is downright terrifying at moments. Borte does not allow Rachel to breathe, pushing her to the brink as she tries to figure out how to stop Tom from killing everyone in her life. We never know when the truck is going to appear. We never know when she’s gonna get another phone call informing her a relative is dead. And when Tom acts, it’s brutal. Brendan Galvin’s frenetic camerawork never lingers too long on the crimes itself, which gives them a nature of realism that doesn’t sit well.
So much of the movie feels like an exploitation film. Excellent performances by Pistorius and Gabriel Bateman as Rachel’s son are almost too believable. You can only hear the blood-curdling screams of a mother and her child trying to evade a dangerous, let’s face it, domestic terrorist for so long. It gets under your skin. But maybe that’s a good thing? The carnage pervades throughout the movie in a twisted game of cat-and-mouse until it reaches its natural conclusion, and no matter who lives, the damage is done. It’s bleak as hell, but it really hits the nail on the head of dread.
I wrestle with how I feel about Unhinged. It certainly is in quite poor taste. Yet, every day since I’ve seen it I find myself utterly terrified when driving for fear of a Tom Cooper. It’s almost hilarious to me that a film this disturbing and senseless would be the movie to draw people back to theaters. Unhinged has its place, and that place is as a B-movie that will be rewarding for horror fans with the strongest of stomachs looking to test their capacity for fear. And for that, I’m glad it exists. –James Preston Poole
Unhinged opens in select theaters on August 21, 2020.