David G. Hughes on Derrick Borte’s ‘Unhinged’ (2020)
There’s a unique pleasure in seeing a certified Hollywood A-lister descend into the grungey sewer of the nuts-and-bolts ‘B’ picture. Perhaps it’s a Luciferian pleasure on the viewers part, as the high and mighty Gods of the screen are brought to the level of existence that we lesser beings—the massa damnata—occupy: jus’ making a living. More innocently, perhaps it’s just the simple pleasure of novelty. After Joan Crawford appeared in British trashola like Berserk! (1967) and Trog (1970), we were encouraged to see it as unambiguously debasing. Almost certainly Crawford saw it that way, but there’s also something humbling and community-building about a return to roots and a back-to-basics that the movie lover indelibly appreciates. In the words of the Lord: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
Russell Crowe is doing a lot of humbling in the deliciously-titled Unhinged and I, for one, shall exalt him for it. This is a movie about a portly baddie smashing up the streets in a road-rage-induced bout of arbitrary lesson-teaching, and it will almost surely find its acolytes. He plays Tom Cooper, a mentally-unstable pick-up driver whose got reasons to be mad. And when residual fuck-up and soon-to-be-divorced Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius in the less flashy role) rubs him the wrong way at the traffic lights for impolite honking, she finds herself pursued and her family targeted.
Although the narrative trajectory is rarely surprising, Unhinged is nastier than you might expect, and Crowe is having a great time. One freely wonders whether he put on the weight ‘for the role’, but however it happened the physical transformation works entirely in the film’s favour. It’s usually the case that physically unflattering roles are compensated with critical acclaim, i.e. work from Bale, Pheonix and Day-Lewis, and that these roles come with psychological complexity that deems it worthy. That’s not the case here. Like a truly respectable actor, Crowe was hesitant to do the gig over qualms with the character’s unrealistic lack of “decision-making infrastructure”. But the scary thing is, and perhaps Crowe had the astuteness to see it, his character’s obsessive resentfulness and obnoxious certitude are probably much closer to our current psychological reality than bidimensional uncertainty. So Crowe plays it with zesty one-dimensionality. Needless to say, this film won’t be sweeping the academy awards. So without pretence, we are left to marvel at the film’s triviality and the extent of Crowe’s ego-death, playing a nihilistic loser who has finally cracked under society’s pressure.
Yes, like many films in recent years, Unhinged has ‘social commentary’ attached to it. Aren’t we all, it posits, going a bit insane? And isn’t it so, it ponders, that all it takes is one bad day to make it so? It’s the same ‘thought-provoking’ premise of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, The Killing Joke (the chief inspiration for Todd Philip’s Joker, which shares a resentful male theme, albeit more portentous) and we’ve seen it before in films like Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993). Unhinged is actually much closer in execution to Schumacher’s superlative Phonebooth (2002), both sharing a concept-driven, taut and trim perspective on movie-making.
Indeed, for all of its ‘commentary’, this is a movie that is refreshingly unambitious. It’s a propulsive no-frills spectacle with solid one-liners, delivered in less than 90 minutes with zero promise of a follow-up. It even ends on a suitably contrived crane shot floating towards the sky for added closure, which also functions as a cruelly ironic reference to an identical closing shot in Gladiator (2000)—the movie that gave Crowe his stratospheric fame and an Oscar to boot. No doubt director Derrick Borte is having fun with his mega-star. He can’t quite believe it, joyfully playing with Crowe’s persona as a tabloid favourite known for rage-induced histrionics. One might even get a whiff of Crowe’s Aussie roots through the film’s Ozploitation-esque quota of silliness, and there’s enough motor vehicle devastation to qualify (although Crowe delivers his performance in a drawling US accent).
Unhinged is about the toll that our fragmented, bi-directional lives takes. But it’s also the sort of movie that acts as the remedy to this overloaded existence: a fun and scary adventure that encourages the viewer to let off steam. So it seems entirely appropriate that a film like Unhinged marks the return of the cinema following a taxing Covid-19 hiatus. Perhaps its because this is the first movie this critic has seen in the theatre for quite some time, but the politically-incorrect sight of an unkempt, mad-eyed villain causing havoc behind the wheel in pursuit of an innocent got me emotional and starting to realise: hot damn, this is a movie! Thank God for it.
‘Unhinged’ is showing in cinemas now.
Director Derrick Borte
Writer Carl Ellsworth
Cinematographer Brendan Galvin
Editor Michael McCusker, Steve Mirkovich, Tim Mirkovich
Cast Russell Crowe, Jimmi Simpson, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman
Duration 90 minutes