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Oscar winners aren’t confined to Oscar-worthy projects. Of course, Russell Crowe is capable of delivering smolder and gravitas to awards-friendly epics such as Gladiator, Les Miserables and A Beautiful Mind. But he’s also able – and very often willing – to let loose in boundary testing genre fare, be it a Universal Monsters reboot (in The Mummy), a superhero origin story (Man of Steel) or a giddy and subversive period crime comedy (The Nice Guys).
Essentially, Crowe avoids being pigeonholed by staying unpredictable, so it’s both surprising and not very surprising to see him playing a menacing brute behind the wheel of a gnarly pickup truck in Derrick Borte’s ruthless Unhinged. Credited only as The Man, Crowe sets his sights on an unsuspecting single mom (Caren Pistorius) after she pisses him off in traffic. What follows is a loud, dumb, but tense-as-hell horror story that’s pure, unapologetic pulp and exactly what we need to shake us out of this current, stagnant theatrical stasis.
Russell Crowe is off-the-rails intense in Unhinged.
I mean, the movie isn’t titled Soothing. Borte’s lead character is relentlessly angry. He starts the movie attacking the home of people we assume he knows (and really, really hates). And the moment that Rachel (Pistorius) accidentally gets under The Man’s skin, he spends the rest of his time unleashing imbalanced, violent justice against her, her son, her lawyer, an innocent man who sticks up for her at a gas station – basically, anyone who makes the mistake of getting in his way.
And Crowe sells it. Like, really sells it. He adopts a strange drawl and packs on pounds, giving him an intimidating physical heft that lends weight (pun intended) to his menace. He’s imposing. The actor’s often imposing, but he exceeds his L.A. Confidential brawn or Cinderella Man bulk in Unhinged. He’s terrifying, whether slamming Jimmi Simpson’s head against a diner table or growling into a cellphone to keep Rachel on her heels.
Borte’s best choice, beyond casting Crowe, is placing him into a powerful truck that rumbles, roars and rips through adversaries like the shark in Jaws. The director absolutely pays homage to Steven Spielberg in Unhinged, borrowing from the shark thriller but also Duel, an early entry in Spielberg’s filmography. But Unhinged is mean and cynical in ways that Jaws or Duel were not, which makes it very relevant to our aggressive time.
Unhinged is suspenseful, but isn’t very smart.
So, credit goes to Derrick Borte for being able to conjure palpable tension with his visuals. There are multiples times during Unhinged when the movie made me squirm in my seat, leap following an unexpected gut punch, or chatter at the screen because a character was about to make a bad decision. Unhinged successfully manifests dread. From its opening montage, the movie paints a dire picture of where we are as a society – angry, aggressive, on edge and prone to violence.
The Man is a byproduct of that daily stress, and his descent (while exaggerated) is believable.
If only Carl Ellsworth’s script kept up with the jabs landed by Crowe and his director. Unhinged is not the smartest movie in the bunch. As often as you will wince due to a physical shock, you’ll also groan because of an impossible plot contrivance that needs to happen to keep the bloody cat-and-mouse charade between Rachel and The Man moving. Unhinged would likely fall apart if you stopped for one second and contemplated the legitimacy of the actions on screen. Borte doesn’t allow for such introspection, but you will notice how cardboard thin the characters are, and how inane the plot twists turn out to be.
However, you aren’t going into Unhinged expecting an Oscar contender, despite its Oscar-winning lead. It’s pulp. Pretty well made. But pulp, through and through.