Movies don’t have to be good to be culturally relevant. Sometimes, the very fact that they’re woefully inept only puts their timeliness into sharper relief. (You don’t have to be distracted by compelling characters or a poignant storyline — you can just focus on the dumb ideas at their center that think they’re so profound.) In that spirit, Unhinged is a supremely awful movie… but it’s also attuned to a culture that’s currently in the throes of a seismic shift, especially when it comes to men. Trying to weaponize our fear of aggressive MRA types who will do anything not to lose their spot atop the societal pecking order — the sorts of men who will jump from hurt feelings to violence with alarming speed — this Russell Crowe B-movie is insightful garbage. It’s not good, but it tells us something about ourselves.
As the film begins, we meet a man called Tom (or perhaps that’s a fake name he uses to conceal his identity) as he’s about to do something horrible. Taking an ax to his front door, he smashes his way inside, causing unseen harm to those who live there. (We hear their anguished screams.) By the time he drives off, the house will have burst into flame because of the gas can he brought with him for this nighttime attack. He is clearly not well.
Cut to the next morning. Caren Pistorius plays Rachel, a hair stylist who’s running late for a gig. Stuck in bad traffic with her adoring son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) in the backseat, she gets a call from the client, who’s annoyed that she’s late and fires her. It’s been a bad day for Rachel — she and her soon-to-be-ex-husband are fighting about finalizing their divorce — and now she’s battling rush hour. What else could go wrong?
These two worlds are about to collide. Rachel encounters Tom while pulling off the freeway, and she’s instantly pissed at him. (His big truck never moved at the green light, forcing her to honk loudly at him to get his attention. Finally, she just drives around, utterly exasperated with this clod.) At the next red light, the two cars are stopped in parallel lanes. He condescendingly apologizes for being asleep at the wheel, and then asks her to apologize for honking so rudely. She declines. He asks again for an apology. She drives away. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in big cities.
But because Unhinged is one of those trashy pseudo-exploitation thrillers — the kind where a simple misunderstanding quickly escalates into a frenzied life-or-death battle — this very common interaction sets the stage for Tom snapping and then proceeding to menace Rachel and everyone she knows, including her brother and her best friend. No one is safe from Tom’s wrath. That’s what you get for not apologizing to a man when you’ve wronged him.
Directed by Derrick Borte, Unhinged features opening credits that are a panoply of archival footage of people freaking out in public, whether because of road rage or general aggravation at the state of the world. The point, as is the case with everything in Unhinged, is spectacularly unsubtle: Modern life is driving us insane! Add to that the fact that Tom suffers from some sort of mental instability — he woofs down prescription pills, apparently to no avail — and you’ve got a cocktail for a ferociously imbalanced individual. And if there’s something you don’t want in your life, it’s an angry, violent white guy nursing a grudge.
On a surface level, the film represents the latest example of the “beware of strangers” horror-thriller genre, in which a seemingly harmless, random person ends up being a sociopath: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, Obsessed. But Unhinged also connects to the Falling Down Cinematic Universe in that it views solitary middle-aged white guys as a scourge on this great nation. In that Michael Douglas film, the main character was unemployed and upset — at technology, at the scorching temperatures, at people of color who didn’t speak English well enough for his liking. Falling Down wanted to be both a cautionary tale and a dark form of guilty-pleasure catharsis: D-Fens was the bad man bellowing what presumably we were all thinking about our confusing, shifting world.
By comparison, Unhinged is much clearer that Tom is the villain, but it’s the banality of his grievance that gives this stinker its upsetting resonance. When the scared Rachel, who realizes that Tom is willing to run over people with his car in pursuit of her, finally tries to apologize, he tells her it’s not sincere enough. It’s not simply that he wants her to say she’s sorry. He wants Rachel to submit to his power — he wants her to show due deference. And he’ll resort to violence to restore the old order. As we’ll eventually discover, those people he torched at the start of Unhinged included his ex-wife. Indeed, his targets aren’t just victims of his sick spirit. They’re ways for him to reassert his dominance. He thinks he’s the wronged party in this film.
If Borte and Crowe had more of a sense of humor about all this, you could call Unhinged a malicious little satire about thwarted masculinity. (That Tom drives a big-ass truck at least indicates that he’s trying to compensate for some deficiency.) But the movie’s cheesy scare sequences and cardboard characters suggest that Unhinged isn’t really interested in investigating any of its deeper meanings. Like most exploitation films, Unhinged is just grabbing a societal anxiety as an excuse for some onscreen mayhem. The filmmakers seem to care more about an excruciatingly lame tagline that Rachel utters when she finally dispenses with Tom than what this movie has to say about our poisonous times.
The closest Unhinged gets to self-reflection is through Crowe’s performance. He’s been a star for a good long while now, but it’s fair to say his Hollywood fame has long since peaked. Somewhat fittingly, the Crowe we see in Unhinged is heavy-set, joyless, vindictive. You could easily conflate the aggrieved character with the actor’s public persona — particularly his penchant for violent outbursts — and, as a result, Tom in some ways feels like Crowe candidly acknowledging his resentful, past-his-prime modern reality. Forget that that’s all just baseless speculation on my part: In Unhinged, Crowe very believably plays an enraged, entitled everyman who doesn’t understand why things haven’t worked out for him. As monstrous as Tom can be, there’s also something profoundly pathetic about this bogeyman — a recognition that, deep down, he knows he’s a loser. Rachel is hardly an ass-kicking physical specimen — Tom could easily overpower her — and so his dogged pursuit of vengeance is mostly just sad. He’ll kill her if that’s what it takes to make her respect him as a man.
Consisting of roughly 80 minutes of so-so car chases and overwrought cell phone exchanges, Unhinged isn’t pulpy enough to be a grindhouse treat nor zeitgeist-y enough to get into your psyche. But even if you want to commend the movie for pinpointing the legion of undeservedly wounded white guys prevalent in our society, consider the fact that there’s a subtle sexism going on within the film, too. Directed by a man (Borte) and written by a man (Carl Ellsworth), Unhinged reduces Rachel — ostensibly the film’s main character — to a scatterbrained, harried single mom who’s not nearly as arresting as the brooding, scary man who’s pursuing her. She’s less a person than a potential victim — apparently, she’s not someone worth developing or exploring.
Unhinged may ultimately be about the terror of being hunted by bad men, but it also exists in an entertainment climate in which bad men (and their feelings) are still considered inherently more dynamic and dramatic than everyday women. In that sense, Tom gets his wish: He’s the film’s alpha, while Rachel is relegated to the sidelines of her own movie. That’ll teach her.