It’s a dark and stormy night – and it’s going to be a dark and stormy film. The first four minutes of Unhinged make it transparently clear that what transpires over the next hour and a half is going to be grim and a lot of people are going to get hurt. But in what comes immediately after that opening sequence – a montage of media clips reflecting an angry society – we see what director Derrick Borte is, pardon the pun, driving at. Or, at least, trying to.
What’s been labelled a road rage movie starts with something that could happen to anybody. The traffic lights shift to green, but the car in front of you doesn’t move. You wait, you get impatient, you honk your horn and, when nothing happens, you overtake, making your displeasure obvious and off you go. That should be it. But this time that other driver happens to be a disturbed Russell Crowe and Rachel (Caren Pistorious) fuels his anger by blaring her horn instead of giving him a “courtesy tap”. From then, it’s downhill all the way at speed, as he seeks to teach her a lesson, one that involves the people in her life that she cares about.
That road rage tag is an easy soundbite. At its heart, this is a chase movie, one that calls to mind the likes of Spielberg’s Duel and, with its social angle, Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. In our interview with Borte, he draws parallels with another Spielberg classic, Jaws, in the way Crowe’s character – known only as The Man – disappears off screen, leaving you wondering when or where he’s going to appear next. But you know he will. When it comes to building the all-important tension, the director is a dab hand: we see in those opening minutes just what The Man is capable of and that, coupled with some spectacular car crashes, means that we spend most of our time on the edge of our seats – and jump out of them for than once.
As a thriller, then, it’s efficient. Sticking to the surface and taking it as such is easy enough, but it’s hard to escape something else lurking beneath – and it’s twofold. Firstly the film’s aspirations to be something of a social commentary: it’s confined very much to media footage and barely strays beyond that, other than to show the prevalent anger resulting from the pressures of what we now should refer to as pre-lockdown life. Rachel is feeling the weight of all her responsibilities – getting her son to school on time, managing her divorce from the boy’s father and losing her most lucrative client. She’s a lot on her plate, like an awful lot of other people. It really doesn’t say much more than that, but the very fact that the story focuses on a woman being pursued by a big, intimidating man in an equally threatening vehicle is what really leaves an iffy taste in the mouth. The Man blames his misfortunes on women and Rachel is in the wrong place at the wrong time. But couldn’t we have had a different dynamic? Two women? A woman chasing a man? Two men? As it stands, it strikes a very mysogenistic tone and, if you’re a woman, there’s a discomfort that turns the tension into something more unpleasant.
It helps that Pistorious gives the film the arresting and convincing performance it needs as the one character who’s hardly ever off the screen. And that she fights back helps lessen that discomfort, but even she can’t manage to eradicate it. Crowe has plenty of physical menace, although there are moments when his portrayal veers close to hammy. However, he’s the star name the film needs at a time when cinemas will be trying their utmost to get people through their doors. Whether they’ll turn up to see Unhinged – and whether he’s The Man With No Name for 2020 – both remain to be seen …..
Drama, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Altitude Films | 31 July 2020 | Dir. Derrick Borte | Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorious, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson.