By Peg Aloi
Unhinged is one of the most violent films I’ve seen in recent memory where there is no excessive gun play. But who needs bullets when you are driving a two ton projectile powered by an endless, roiling fount of rage?
Unhinged, directed by Derrick Borte.
Who among us hasn’t succumbed to a bit of road rage (laid on the horn too long at a red light, tailgated someone we thought was going too slow), or been a recipient of it? Lazy driving has turned downright reckless during the American pandemic, whether due to stress, existential dread, anger, or an assumption that law enforcement has more on its mind than to watch for people running red lights and stop signs or passing people on a double yellow line. Now there’s one more thing to be terrified about on the road: Derrick Borte’s violent thriller is about a man who goes on a terrifying rampage after a traffic confrontation with a young woman.
Russell Crowe is Tom Cooper, a man angry at the world, but especially at his ex-wife. A montage of TV and radio headlines scream progressively louder about all the many things that may be filling us with terror or outrage now. After that, a charged-up Tom, who looks as if he hasn’t slept for weeks, gets into his big silver pickup truck with a push bar on the front, gobbles up Vicodin, and slams on the gas. Crowe looks the part: he has a massive gut and a puffy face, the picture of an unhealthy opioid addict and chronic pain sufferer. Eventually he drives up to a suburban home, breaks down the door, attacks the people inside and, after dumping gasoline everywhere, sets the house on fire. Cue opening credits.
Cooper, in addition to being a psychopath, also fancies himself to be an aficionado of road rage. After his first act of arson, he begins to drive around looking for terror victim #2. The other character in this horrific game of cat and mouse is Rachel (Denial’s Caren Pistorius). She’s going through a divorce herself, and is dealing with a goodly share of stress: trying to keep her hair styling business afloat after her salon closed, raising her ten year old son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), and coming to terms with her younger brother, who moved in a few months ago with his girlfriend. On what seems to be a typically bad morning, she sleeps through her alarm, misses a meeting with an important client and loses the gig, and has to grapple with crappy morning traffic in Seattle as she drives Kyle to school. Cooper fails to move at a green light and Rachel lays hard on her horn. The sicko follows her and, while the two are stuck in traffic, he informs her she should have used a “courtesy tap” and asks her to apologize. Rachel refuses; thus begins Cooper’s determination to ruin her life. But, for the moment, she drives innocently away.
After dropping off Kyle, and on her way to have breakfast at a diner with her friend Andy (Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson), who’s also her divorce lawyer, she’s waylaid again by Tom, who has been tailgating her. He deliberately rear ends her car (an old but reliable red Volvo station wagon, sure to be dubbed the “must have” car for surviving a road rage attack). She eludes him again and goes to a gas station, where Tom steals her phone. Another thread is added to this modern tale of urban terror: how personal technology can be exploited to stalk and intimidate people. He uses her smartphone to contact her via a flip phone he left in her car. Tom threatens Rachel in a plethora of ways: first saying he’ll hack into her bank account, then making it clear he will harm her family. He proves that he means business after he meets up with Andy, posing as Rachel’s friend. The diner soon becomes a locus of violence and mayhem. Rachel must act fast to protect her son, her brother, and her mother, whose assisted living facility is also easily found on her phone.
The next few action sequences take place mostly while Rachel and Tom are driving. Some of the car chase scenes end in multiple accidents — which are truly horrific to behold though rather impressively staged. There may be some benefit here: it may cause many viewers to think twice about what might happen if momentarily distracted by their cell phones while driving, or by their fellow passengers — or by the maniac rageaholic in the rear view mirror.
Though the dialogue comes off as formulaic at times, the cast is more than credible, though Caren Pistorius sometimes looks and sounds so much like a young Jennifer Connelly that it becomes a bit distracting. Crowe is brutal and menacing and utterly believable as a man with nothing left to lose who thinks he needs to punish those around him. He has apparently put considerable thought into the best ways to torture his fellow human beings. We get very little of Tom’s backstory, which doesn’t seem to matter: what’s pertinent is his fury, immediate and total. Unhinged is one of the most violent films I’ve seen in recent memory where there is no excessive gun play. But who needs bullets when you are driving a two ton projectile powered by an endless, roiling fount of rage?
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.