Director Derrick Borte’s road rage thriller Unhinged belongs to the tradition of movies in which a protagonist finds themselves targeted by a deranged motorist. This was a particularly popular storyline in American TV movies of the ‘70s, when car ownership had exploded to the point where the car became an extension of its owner’s personality, for better or worse. Small screen thrillers like Duel, Night Terror and Death Car on the Freeway exploited the potential for chaos that can arise when a motorist decides to defy the social contract we agree to adhere to whenever we get behind the wheel. Unhinged adds very modern elements like the stress of the gig economy, surveillance and entitlement culture to a formula that always makes for a gripping thriller.
Traditionally movies of this ilk have left their behind the wheel baddies unseen and their motivations ambiguous, but Unhinged breaks tradition by introducing us to its antagonist straight off. Tom (Russell Crowe), a big, hairy, walking ulcer of a man, murders his ex-wife and her new lover before burning down their house and taking off in his pick-up truck (which looks a lot like the one that menaced Lance Henriksen in the 1983 horror anthology Nightmares).
The following morning, flibbertigibbet mum Rachel (Caren Pistorius, impressive, if a little too young for this part) oversleeps once again and ends up stuck in freeway traffic while driving her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school. Her tardiness causes her to lose a much-needed client, which sets her in a bad mood. Getting off the freeway, Rachel turns down a side road, only to find herself stuck behind Tom’s rumbling truck. When the light turns green and he fails to move, Rachel angrily overtakes him while flipping the bird. Tom catches up with her at the next light and apologizes for his inaction, requesting that she similarly atone for her rudeness. When Rachel refuses to apologize, Tom’s seething rage comes to the fore, and he vows to show her what a bad day really is.
And boy, does he. Unhinged has a gnarly edge that you rarely see in mainstream American genre fare. It has the feel of an Australian ‘Ozploitation’ thriller, both in its use of vehicles and in how it creates a feeling that anything can happen at any time. Tom isn’t messing around, tracking down Rachel’s nearest and dearest and slicing them up while running over innocent pedestrians and leaving a trail of freeway pile-ups in his wake. He has the relentless determination of a Terminator crossed with the “woe is me” attitude of Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
What makes Unhinged so interesting is that both its heroine and villain are cut from a similar cloth. Tom feels like the world owes him a favor, and his violence is spurred by the solipsistic idea that he’s the only one with troubles. Add some divorce induced misogyny and he becomes all too relatable. Far from some fantastical bad guy, Tom is the sort of bloke who sits at the end of the bar and bores everyone with tales of how society has failed him. While she doesn’t express her discontent through violence, Rachel similarly blames the world for her problems. When her client gives her the boot over the phone (which she constantly uses while driving), Rachel launches into a rant about how the world has screwed her over once again. It’s left to her son to remind her that she was the one who overslept. Unhinged doesn’t care if we like Rachel or not, and at one point she makes a despicable but if we’re honest, understandable decision that puts an innocent person in potential danger. In the reductive parlance of the internet, this is a story of a Karen menaced by an MRA.
Borte’s filmmaking isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s economical and effective. Carl Ellsworth’s script never has to resort to exposition, gradually filling in the personas of Tom and Rachel without getting bogged down in any distracting backstories. Coming in at a refreshing 90 minutes, Unhinged moves at a relentless pace, and we share Rachel’s sweaty anguish as she finds herself trying to juggle ways to keep her various family members safe from Tom’s ire. It’s the sort of movie that might have been a summer blockbuster 25 years ago, and given the current COVID-19 induced state of cinemas, it just might prove to be one of this summer’s hits.
Unhinged - 3 ½ Stars out of 5
Directed by: Derrick Borte; Starring: Russell Crowe, Gabriel Bateman, Caren Pistorious, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com