Unhinged is top-grade B-movie trash

Russell Crowe summons the ghost of Oliver Reed in this brutal automotive thriller.

There was a time, not too long ago, where the rich tradition of British male actors almost always included a slow and steady decline into bloat and alcoholism. Perhaps the purest example of this is Oliver Reed, whose career took him from primo Angry Young Man territory into unsavoury genre waters where, soused beyond belief, he would regularly take a swim in the river of ham. Oliver Reed died during the shooting of Gladiator after a marathon drinking match with a bunch of sailors — many of whom he also beat at arm-wrestling before collapsing of a heart attack. I’m telling you all this now because it seems to be no coincidence that Tom Cooper, the beady-eyed maniac Russell Crowe portrays in the B-grade thriller Unhinged, feels like a character Oliver Reed might’ve played in an unsavory Eurosleaze co-production from 1981. 

This, in case you weren’t 100 per cent clear, is a good thing.

Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius) is under a lot of pressure: she’s getting divorced, she’s trying to put her mother in a home, she’s trying to raise her 13-year-old son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), her unemployed brother (Austin P. McKenzie) and his girlfriend are living rent-free in her home and the perpetual stress of her home life has affected her professional life as a personal hairdresser. Suffice to say that Rachel is not exactly as patient as she should be when she’s blocked in traffic by a big pick-up truck driven by Tom Cooper (Crowe), who, unbeknownst to Rachel, has just killed his ex-wife and her new flame with a sledgehammer and set their house on fire. Disgruntled, it seems, by his recent divorce and the way in which entitled women have made an example of him, Cooper decides instead to make an example of Rachel by coming completely unhinged and stalking her across the city, attacking her friends and family to make her pay for her lack of courtesy.

Though the logline makes Unhinged sound like an update on Spielberg’s classic Duel, the reality is that Unhinged is essentially a turbo-charged slice-and-dice slasher in the most classical mode imaginable. The automotive aspects are ever-present, but used more as a storytelling convention than the central action. In other words, Crowe gets out and busts some heads fairly regularly.

Unhinged is one of those bad-taste (or certainly bad-taste-adjacent) thrillers that crouches its bone-snapping action in some semblance of social commentary — namely, that our modern society has lost its good graces, everyone is impolite and hurried and living on their phones, and that makes it easier for Oxy-popping MRA bear-men to snap. The film stops short of attempting to generate sympathy for its villain (his insane sexist rants are presented mainly as a word salad squeezed out through gritted teeth) but it does have its feet planted firmly in exploitation waters first charted by Death Wish nearly 50 years ago — a movie in which innocent people die because society is just poisoned by our collective indifference.

On paper, I have to say that this kind of op-ed fearmongering isn’t really conducive to subtle social commentary, let alone a feature-length film. But in actuality, Unhinged’s absolute lack of subtlety results in a pretty efficient and brutal thriller. It has to be said that a well-balanced worldview and subtle questioning of cultural paradigms has rarely been the key to an effective thriller, and in that sense Unhinged joins a long tradition of drive-in or B-grade thrillers whose dubious or surface-level politics only enhance their queasy power. (It’s pretty fortuitous that, in many cases, Unhinged will actually end up playing pandemic drive-ins, a perfectly logical endpoint that could not have been planned two years ago.)

While not exactly on the same relentless level as something like Green Room, Unhinged has a simplicity of purpose and execution that definitely works in its favour. Ingenious without resorting to puzzle-box nonsense, it manages to bypass most of the inherent clichés of the genre (how it gets around the tedious logic of ever-present cell phones, for example, is pretty impressive, relatively speaking) and maintains a fever pitch throughout. The best one can hope for with a movie like this is that its strings don’t show too much, and director Derrick Borte does a commendable job keeping things under control.

Nevertheless, Unhinged wouldn’t work if the monstrous figure at its core wasn’t so believable. Crowe, still packing much of the heft he gained to play Roger Ailes in The Loudest Voice and clad in the normiest attire of khakis and a blue oxford, alternates between simmering anger and bellowing rage with a calibration of hamminess that grounds the film. Crowe is exactly what a movie as inherently preposterous as Unhinged needs, a giant seething bear who crashes through doors gracelessly and stammers and groans his way through his big speeches. Tom Cooper is both a terrifying and pathetic figure, but one that the film never tries to humanize too much. Though not exactly washed-up, Crowe brings the exact same kind of bygone gravitas that Oliver Reed might have brought this movie had it been made 30 years ago.

Back in the studio system days, there was a streak of film criticism that claimed that B-movies, with their lower budgets and relative lack of supervision, were freer to comment on the ills of society and bring to light its more prurient aspects. B-movies came closer to the unvarnished truth than big, lavish Hollywood productions by virtue of being taken less seriously. Unhinged sort of flips that idea around on its head by actively exploiting the ills of society in order to bring a bit of (mostly undeserved) levity to hoary genre fun. It doesn’t entirely work, but it’s the rare genre film that actually gets a boost from taking itself overly seriously. ■

Unhinged opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 14

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