Years from now, “Unhinged” will be remembered as the answer to a trivia question: What was the first major movie release in America when theaters began to reopen during the pandemic of 2020?
It’ll take a lot less time than that for the actual content and quality of the film to dissipate from the pop culture landscape. Despite a ferocious, screen-chewing performance from Russell Crowe as a maniac on a killing spree and some well-executed B-movie thrills and chills and (blood) spills, “Unhinged” never rises to the level of similarly themed films such as “Falling Down” and “Changing Lanes” and Steven Spielberg’s “Duel.” The broad-stroke social commentary quickly gives way to a grimy and gruesome stalker movie with the camera lingering on scenes of brutal violence — some shown in excruciating close-up, others right out of a “Final Destination” movie.
Crowe is in XXXL mode as Tom Cooper, a hulking, sweating, intimidating bruiser who looks like an NFL linebacker who has let himself go. In the opening sequence, Tom exits his gray pickup truck in a pouring rain, bashes down the front door of his ex-wife’s house and kills her and her partner before torching the place. Cue the opening credits: a montage of viral videos of violent confrontations, as we hear snippets of news broadcasts about how “incivility is a major issue in America” and “stress levels are at an all-time high,” All true, now more than ever, but the point is delivered with a sledgehammer. (The pounding soundtrack doesn’t help.)
Cut to scenes of the harried morning home life of Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a recently divorced mom who recently has lost her salon and always seems to be running late as she ferries her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) around. When a stressed-out Rachel finds herself behind a gray pickup truck that doesn’t move when the light turns green, she lays on the horn twice before roaring around the vehicle and gesturing at the driver.
Big mistake, Rachel. Huge.
Yep, that’s Tom behind the wheel of that pickup truck — his shirt still bearing a few specks of blood from the predawn double murder. He catches up to Rachel at the next stoplight, and explains she should have employed a gentle “courtesy tap” on the horn instead of such angry and aggressive honking, and he’d appreciate an apology. When Rachel expresses zero sympathy for Tom when he says he’s been having a hard time lately (“Welcome to the club,” she replies), Tom retorts, “I don’t think you even know what a bad day is, but you’re going to find out. You hear me, miss? You’re going to f—ing learn.”
Tom ain’t playing. We don’t anything about this guy’s backstory, but he seems to be a pretty slick criminal operator. He manages to swipe Rachel’s phone at a gas station and put a burner phone in her glove compartment, so he can telephonically terrorize her. And now that he has access to Rachel’s text messages and voicemails, he begins to hunt down people close to Rachel, in some cases ending them on the spot as he zeroes in on those who matter most to her, telling her, “Let’s play Russian Roulette with your contact list!” and even making her choose the next victim.
That’s admittedly creative (albeit nasty) stuff, and director Derrick Borte does a solid job of staging some action-packed highway chases and crashes, not to mention a few creepy and tense moments, e.g., when Rachel’s best friend and divorce attorney Andy (Jimmi Simpson) realizes the amiable fella across the table from him at a diner is actually the guy stalking Rachel.
Russell Crowe is an A-list star in a B-movie, but to his credit it never feels as if he’s slumming it. Crowe’s twangy-voiced maniac isn’t a fully developed character or even some kind of symbolic figure of White Male Rage — he’s an insane spree killer who uses everything from his pickup truck to a cigarette lighter to his meaty bare hands to maim and kill people in broad daylight.
For all its early and superficial signals of saying something about the stressful times we live in and how a single moment of conflict can have life-altering consequences, by the time hear a Chillwave version of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” over the closing credits, “Unhinged” has revealed itself to be about as deep and resonant and logical as a second-tier “Halloween” movie.