Over a staggered series of pandemic-delayed release dates, “Unhinged” has been consistently hyped as the film that will bring the dormant theatrical scene back to life — the one that, as other major releases have either postponed themselves into the distant whenever or bit the bullet and premiered online, has stuck to its guns as a summer big-screen experience. That’s no small amount of self-imposed pressure on a film that, on paper at least, doesn’t look all that prepossessing. An honestly trashy B-thriller that is by now less widely known by its title than as “you know, the Russell Crowe road rage movie,” it doesn’t exactly seem too momentous a film event for VOD.
And yet, five pulpy minutes into “Unhinged,” you kind of see what they were waiting for. Dispensing with context or polite foreplay, Derrick Borte’s film begins with a bloody, punch-drunk doozy of a prologue: Crowe, parked on a suburban street in a crashing rainstorm, lighting matches and watching them burn out with his signature deep-furrowed scowl. Clearly this behavior isn’t leading anywhere pleasant, though we aren’t prepared for just how quickly things escalate. Suddenly resolute, as David Buckley’s hardworking score reaches shrieking pitch, he marches out of the car carrying an ax, hacks open the front door of the nearest house, hacks open the terrified couple inside, sets the house on fire for good measure, and drives off into the soaking night. The title credit hasn’t even appeared on screen yet, but the film has already fulfilled its promise: Russell Crowe sure is unhinged.
It’s a galvanizing opening salvo: Whether the film will be any good or not remains a question mark, but it’s certainly cinema, and most viewers will be fully locked in at this point, if only to see what this nameless, rudely introduced killer does next. Sure enough, he does plenty more, though for all the cheap-and-dirty genre pleasures that ensue, “Unhinged” can never top the gripping, grisly pull of that first scene. That comes down to a structural miscalculation in the Swiss-cheese script by genre pro Carl Ellsworth (“Red Eye,” “Disturbia”): If you begin your film about a maniac with the psycho-meter dialed up to 11, there’s nowhere to go but sideways. And while you can still do a lot of spectacular damage going sideways — as “Unhinged” goes on to demonstrate in a series of niftily choreographed, lane-weaving car chases — any dramatic rewards are scant.
In an effort not to give us too much Crowe too soon, the film subsequently shifts its attention to co-lead Caren Pistorius, doughty and likable in one of those idly written single-mom roles, where scatty habits — she’s perennially late, mostly — and the constant admonishing presence of a more mature child stand in for actual human detail. Her character, freelance hairstylist Rachel, is having the latest in an apparent sequence of bad days: She oversleeps, is fired by her biggest client, is being pestered by her ex in ugly divorce negotiations, is late getting her exasperated son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school, and that’s before the rush-hour traffic lands her bumper-to-bumper with the thuggishly huge Ford pickup driven by Crowe’s simmering villain.
An everyday altercation at the traffic lights — he doesn’t go on green, she honks a little too hard — is all it takes to set the guy on her case, first by exchanging hostile words at the next stop, then by threateningly tailing her at the gas station, and then by stealing her phone and seeking to rather creatively murder pretty much everyone in her contacts. As we’ve learned to expect by this point, the man does not do road rage by halves.
What suspense there is in the straightforward cat-and-mouse game that ensues largely revolves around Crowe’s enormous, hell-for-leather-and-then-some performance, as he alternates between quietly seething derangement and roaring, stabby hysteria from one scene to the next, just to keep things interesting. There’s always been something of Richard Burton about Crowe as an actor, beginning with the booming, regal stature of their respective sword-and-sandal blockbusters, and extending to the intense, blowsy slumming of later roles: Like Burton, too, you can’t take your eyes off him in either register.
Still, there are only so many notes Crowe can find to play in this ludicrous enterprise, which, despite an opening credit sequence that pulls and collages various newsy soundbites about a national road-rage crisis — “Incivility is a major issue in America, we were born angry,” we are solemnly told — has no interest in psychologizing any of these lurid goings-on. “Unhinged” is the anti-“Joker,” for better or worse, and it’s not about to let earnest considerations of mental health get in the way of its multi-car pileups. And what pileups: Editor Michael McCusker, fresh off his Oscar win for “Ford v. Ferrari,” evidently brings some of that whiplash-inducing zip-and-snap to this far cheaper automotive exercise.
All we know of the man’s madness, then, is what’s made clear at the outset, in that wham-bam opener — that it’s vaguely rooted in bitter divorce woes. Extract from that some subtext on toxic masculinity if you will, but you’d be working harder than “Unhinged” wants you to, and indeed harder than the film does itself: It’s not as if any character’s behavior stands up to even faint scrutiny over the course of 90 go-go-go minutes, be it Rachel, whose fightback schemes get more elaborate and illogical by the second, or one hapless dim-bulb of a divorce lawyer, who apparently couldn’t spot a red flag if he were waving it at a charging bull. The carnage is the point here, not any of the reasoning behind it, and Borte and Crowe bring it to a suitably frothing, furious head: Some movies just want to watch the world burn, preferably on a very big screen.