Unhinged: It’s a B-Movie ‘Duel’ on amphetamines

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After 5 mind-numbingly horrible months, I found myself back in a cinema again this afternoon. I’m not being churlish of course, there was an inarguable necessity in it, but I nevertheless missed the (extortionately priced) popcorn and soft drinks, the helpful and cheery staff, the smell of the freshly-vacuumed corridor carpets and the womb-like comfort of being entranced by images and sounds on that enormous screen in front of me, shrouded in darkness. Even if I’ve had a day (or maybe a week) that has left much to be desired, that communal experience always puts a bit of wind in my sails.

I’m even gladder that the film that marked my return is the kind of loud and excessive brain candy that inevitably makes me start to feel withdrawal symptoms if I’m apart from it for too long (you can’t keep Bergman, Loach & Kubrick up all of the time, they need a bit of rest now and again). Unhinged, the latest offering from director Derrick Borte, is a chase thriller predicated on the charming societal phenomenon of road rage, and its title couldn’t be more appropriate.

In the film’s opening sequence, we are introduced to a man (Russell Crowe, glaringly heavy-set) sitting in a pick-up truck on a rainy suburban road in the early hours. Sweating profusely, scowling and in physical discomfort, he pops what appears to be a couple of prescription pills before disembarking his vehicle and committing a horrendous act of violence. It’s a rather disturbing prologue that aptly sets the mood for the onslaught of cinematised hypertension that is to follow.

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Much later that morning, Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius) is preparing to drive her teenage son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school. A recently divorced young mother, Rachel has been enduring financial woes in the wake of her salon business folding, her most lucrative private client has just fired her because of too many no-shows, and her ex-husband has filed a court petition seeking ownership of the home they shared. Pile all of this on top of the fact that Kyle is now deeply hurt due to his dad reneging on a promise to spend time with him, and it’s impressive that she’s managing to retain a semblance of sanity.

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Impatiently attempting to navigate a colossal traffic jam on the freeway, Rachel turns off into an intersection and lands right behind the very same pick-up truck that we saw in the opening scene. The light turns green, but there’s no movement to be observed. After some thoroughly stressed-out shouting and forehead-cradling, Rachel punches down the horn in a cathartic fury, continuing to do so as she speeds past the truck into the next road, only to join yet another build-up of cars. Unfortunately, the pick-up has also joined the line, sidling right up next to Rachel’s station wagon. The man motions for Kyle to push the window down, and with a faux-affable menace in his voice, he condescendingly enquires as to why Rachel needed to be so aggressive when a friendly ‘courtesy tap’ would have sufficed. With Rachel tersely refusing his insistence on a mutual apology, the man’s demeanour turns to one of unmitigated anger, promising to show Rachel ‘what a bad day truly is’.

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For her rather innocuous stint of prickliness behind the wheel, Rachel is about to be subjected to one of the worst days any human being could possibly endure. As luck would have it, the man in the truck is the ‘Unhinged’ of the title, a violent, cunning and fearless psychopath who proceeds to mercilessly stalk our heroine, subjecting her, everyone she cares about and even unwitting pedestrians to a barrage of mind games, mayhem and murder. It’s a 0-100 that she won’t be forgetting in a hurry, should she indeed live to do so.

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First and foremost, there is absolutely no heavy lifting required with this film. It has drawn comparisons to Duel and Falling Down, with which it only shares superficial similarities of road rage and life’s stresses tipping one over the edge. You certainly won’t find any subtle Hitchcockian suspense or thoughtful social critique here, but that doesn’t mean that the film is without merit, quite the opposite. It was advertised as an intense cat-and-mouse thriller, and it doesn’t let up or get boring for even a second. If there is to be any comparison made to the classics, I would posit The Hitcher, as although our antagonist isn’t attempting to frame Rachel for any of his diabolical exploits, he does his damndest to drill it into her head that it’s all her fault. The performances are generally decent enough to command attention, but the bulk of props must inevitably go to Crowe.

As ‘The Man’ (He is credited as such, and the one point where he gives another character his name is presumed to be a fib), Crowe has created a truly nasty and unsettling villain that signifies a kind of atavistic bravery in subject matter, his character akin to an old-school slasher baddie albeit one who doesn’t hide in the shadows and won’t allow demographics to deter him, as neither women nor kids are safe from his extreme wrath. A tall, hulking mass of misanthropic apoplexy, The Man cares nought for discretion as he cuts a path of destruction across the city harassing Rachel, seemingly unfazed by police attention and the fact that his image is plastered over every news channel. A staggeringly violent individual (often to a murderous degree), he supplements his explosive hatred with consummate sadism, delightedly contemptuous as he threatens to take Rachel’s loved ones to hell with him as retribution for her ‘arrogance’. He is a wrecking ball composed of misogyny and weird, paranoid hostility that taps snappily into male insecurities, and Crowe has a talent for disquieting build-ups of anger that few can rival.

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As for drawbacks, the element that makes the film so gruelling is that much of the on-screen events are not without verisimilitude, and it is subsequently difficult to overlook some conspicuously improbable developments that occur in the third act. I also found the decision to give glimpses into The Man’s backstory a jarring one, as the fact that he isn’t bestowed with a name indicated some admirably minimalist depiction of him as a cypher of social malevolence, so any rationale or origin to explain his antics comes across as clumsy and spoils the magic a little bit. It might be a popcorn thriller, but it is a predominantly well-paced one with nicely crafted sustained threat, so the interjections of lazy/silly writing rubbed yours truly up the wrong way a bit, but not enough to colour my feelings for the film in its totality.

It doesn’t break any new ground, there is nothing novel or ingenious in the narrative, Crowe is the standout in a sea of serviceable acting and it’s already had the label of ‘exploitation film’ thrown at it. Bearing all of this in mind, I really enjoyed this one. It is a nerve-wracker and mean-spirited in ways that caught me off guard, providing a grimly entertaining throwback to the old ‘psycho vs. woman in peril’ scenario without getting bogged down in meaningless subplots, insertions of love interests or irritating and destabilising twists. It was good to see something bombastic and crazy on the big screen once again, so if you’re at a loss for something to do this weekend and there’s a cinema open near you, this one will make for some fun conversation over some beers after the fact.

 

 

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