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Unhinged Review: Crowe’s Road Rage Thriller Terrifies

Unhinged may be a simple and straightforward story, but this suspenseful saga still offers exciting and explosive escapism.

After being closed for nearly six months due to the COVID-19 outbreak, theaters across the nation are set to reopen this weekend, welcoming audiences back to the captivating cinematic experience and attempting to form a foundation for a fruitful fall moviegoing season, full of flashy films of all shapes of sizes. Once upon a time, Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated time-bending blockbuster Tenet was intended to be the world’s re-introduction to the charm of the cinema, but due to a surplus of scheduling delays, Solstice Studios’ riveting road rage thriller Unhinged has unexpectedly beat Nolan’s prospective box office phenomenon to the punch.

Founded in October 2018, Solstice Studios was built to be a theatrical producer and distributor that dedicated itself to releasing 3-5 mid-budget movies from the action, thriller, or action-comedy genres per year to capitalize on the absence of adult-oriented films in the marketplace, following the recent four-quadrant blockbusters’ domination. As its first feature, Unhinged must not only substantiate the strength of this fledgling film studio but also affirm that audiences are willing to return to theaters en masse in the middle of a still-potent pandemic. Is this terrifyingly tense tale up to the task?

Unhinged centers around a chance encounter between the newly divorced and down-on-her-luck Rachel (Caren Pistorius, of Mortal Engines and Slow West) and a mysterious and monstrous man (Russell Crowe, of Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind) who fails to drive forward when the light at a busy intersection turns “green.” Irritated and in a hurry as she tries to take her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman, of Child’s Play and Lights Out) to school, Rachel repeatedly honks her horn at “The Man’s” pickup truck before backing up and navigating around his vehicle, desperate to get on with her day. Unfortunately, “The Man” ferociously follows the strained single mother, asking Rachel for an apology for her actions and receiving no remark in return. Seemingly within a split second, “The Man” snaps, making it his mission to make Rachel “pay” for her “harshness,” setting off a spirited cat and mouse chase between the two that showcases a slew of spine-tingling sequences of suspense and spotlights the sad state of our short-tempered and severely unsympathetic society.

Now, look, when considered for what it contributes to “cinema as an art form,” no one is going to say that Unhinged offers anything “meaningful” to the medium. Though screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia, The Last House on the Left) strives to put forth some sweeping social statements about the decrease in decency in our interactions with others and our inability to converse with one another civilly (exemplified in an opening montage made up of news footage of real-world rage), these ambitious aims amount to little more wishful window dressing for the gritty and gory genre chronicle he has crafted here.

UNHINGED (Skip Bolden/Solstice Studios)

And yet, this dearth of depth doesn’t dampen one’s enjoyment of Unhinged in any capacity, simply because the film is so enormously entertaining regardless. Ellsworth’s script has its savage schlock down to a science, and it’s at its best not when it’s trying to tackle “topical” themes but when it is harrowingly hyper-focused on the chilling chaos caused by Crowe’s “The Man.” Is this mania a must-see for those still skeptical of traveling over to their nearest theater? Probably not, but for those who are energized for good old-fashioned escapism after being holed up in their homes for almost half a year, Unhinged gets the job done.

Many of the film’s achievements can be attributed to the Academy-Award winning Crowe, who takes full advantage of his acclaimed acting abilities as the unsettling and unnamed “The Man,” and never feels as if he’s “phoning in” his portrayal of this belligerent brute. His insidious inclinations are established early on in a petrifying prologue that sees “The Man” depravedly dispose of those who he believes have “done him wrong,” but aside from these minute mentions of his past pains, his overall outrage is left unexplained – and this is a commendable choice on the film’s part. Sure, Crowe gets to deliver a few delirious diatribes about the “woes of the white man,” and again, it’s made clear that “The Man” is dealing with a “bad day,” but otherwise, what makes him “snap” is never explicitly stated, and this uncertainty is all the more unnerving. Crowe clearly succeeds thanks to the “secrecy” surrounding “The Man’s” madness – as it feeds his flexibility as an actor – but this ambiguity also causes audiences to re-analyze the conceivably crazed citizens they come across each and every day, taking this terror with them as they leave the theater.

Pistorius is a pleasant presence as our plucky protagonist, emanating earnestness as a mom merely trying to make do with the crappy cards she’s been dealt in life. She – and Ellsworth – are asked to tackle a tricky tightrope act of authentically depicting Rachel’s dire mistake without accidentally acting as if this trip-up warrants “The Man’s” wrath, but thanks to Pistorius’ compassionate characterization and Ellsworth’s extensive exploration of her struggles, we are able to regard Rachel as a three-dimensional individual whose momentary misbehavior doesn’t define her. In addition, her diligent dedication to the safety of her son elicits further sympathy, and her epic evolution into a fearsome “final girl” in the film’s frightening finale earns our engagement as well.

Director Derrick Borte, formerly best known for the 2010 dark comedy The Joneses, delivers on the white-knuckle kineticism we’ve come to anticipate from anxiety-inducing adventures like this, staging some truly sensational spectacle, particularly with “The Man’s” high-speed pursuits of Pistorius’ Rachel. Occasionally, the editing can become a bit too erratic, but for the most part, this pandemonium is a potent and powerful presentation of panic, and Borte receives our respect for so admirably actualizing the film’s alarming atmosphere of aggression (though he does receive an appreciated assist from David Buckley’s skillfully stimulating score).

All-in-all, Unhinged isn’t some contemporary cinematic classic that “can’t be missed” or a sample of subversive, “state-of-the-art” storytelling, but it is a gloriously gripping genre film that shows Solstice Studios’ success at shaping such sagas, and it offers an energetic and exciting escape in these torturous and trying times. With a powerhouse performance from Russell Crowe and an ample amount of arresting action throughout the film’s rip-roaring 93-minute runtime, Unhinged is the ultimate “end-of-summer” suspense-driven surprise that satisfies and startles in equal measure.

Unhinged is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

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