I don’t mind exploitation films, even if I’m generally not a fan of the genre. Mostly because even at their worst, the best ones are such cheesy fun that you can easily overlook their faults.
But what I do mind are the exploitation films that are so calculated, so utterly unimaginative that they lose any sense of their roots and become empty vessels for direct-to-video filler. Such is the case with UNHINGED, a decidedly dull, lifeless, and witless film attempting to cash in on white male rage.
Russel Crowe plays The Man (really), an angry, mentally deranged lump of violence in a hilariously monstrous SUV. He doesn’t get a name, or a personality for that matter, and his sole purpose is to create carnage. When the film opens, we see him butchering his ex-wife and new lover, before setting their house on fire. Utilizing the essentials of lazy filmmaking, director Derrick Borte makes sure that we also see him popping SSRI’s, because that’s how those work.
Caren Pistorious is Rachel, a mess of a person trying to take care of her son as she navigates her rocky divorce. She’s portrayed as in perpetual arrested development, blaming her problems on everything around her instead of assuming responsibility. The script, already a confused mess, uses the violence that ensues as – brace for it – an object lesson for her to grow up and be a better person.
Rachel and The Man meet in traffic, where she lashes out for being late by honking her horn at The Man, who sits through a green light without moving. This is enough for him to begin a game of cat and mouse that defies both logic and the laws of physics on a citywide scale. Crowe and Pistorious do their best with the terrible material, but there’s only so much that any actor can accomplish when their screen directions are either “be angry” or “be scared.”
Crowe in particular feels like he’s fallen hard from grace. A powerful and charismatic leading man of the late 90s and 2000s, he looks utterly bored for most of the film. Only the rare occasion sees a hint of the actor that charmed the world in GLADIATOR or THE INSIDER. His bullish exterior is exacerbated by the ill-fitting wardrobe and midlife crisis truck, both resulting in some truly funny moments as the film expects us to believe he can pull off amazing feats of physical maneuvering.
That’s not accounting for the cheap empowerment angle that director Borte goes for at the end. Anyone who has seen one of these films before knows what’s coming, but it’s such a weak attempt that nothing feels satisfying. If anything, it’s almost insulting in how calculated the ending seems, as if 80 minutes of emotional and physical abuse is washed away in a single stroke of retaliatory violence, and such an action brings catharsis that makes the victim a better person. It aims for trashy classics like THE DAY OF THE WOMAN and instead feels like a book report on that by someone who didn’t actually see the film.
UNHINGED feels like a relic of a past age, something that would have come out of American suburbia in the 90s. An opening credit sequence tries hamfistedly to peg the blame on societal collapse, but it’s unfocused and trite. The aforementioned mental illness is teased, but never expanded. The Man complains about losing everything in his life, from work to his spouse, and it feels like a half-hearted wave at the disillusioned MAGA crowd. But none of these aspects connect, instead making the film feel like it’s trying really hard to make excuses for The Man. As if unlike the boogeyman or the killer in a slasher film, an angry white guy can’t just be evil, he must have context for his actions.
There’s also a hilarious dependency on explaining everything to the viewer, as if the script expects that those watching are somehow unable to grasp even the simplest concept. One of the most unintentionally funny moments comes when a gas station attendant reveals to Pistorious what’s happening to her. “He’s road raging you,” she says as if this was some grand reveal. The droning music warbles, as if it was trying to signify something important, and Pistorious opens her eyes wide. Like nobody had ever heard of this concept before this very moment.
UNHINGED is the first “big” film to arrive in theaters this summer during the pandemic, and any other year it wouldn’t mean much of anything. Any normal year it would be buried in the VOD sales section. But now, with no competition in sight, the lanes are clear for any mediocrity to run amok on the screen.
It’s not entirely the film’s fault. Sure, it’s a terrible, ugly, and boring movie with almost nothing worth recommending, but that’s kind of what it says on the tin. This is the kind of D-Lister schlock you’d find from Blockbuster when all the real films were taken, or a midnight movie you’d go see at a festival specializing in them.
Now it’s just a warning sign for those venturing out into the cinemas after a long dry spell of isolation.
It reads: Stay home.