Unhinged (2020) is a cinematic throwback in all the best ways.
An exercise in the lurking terror of everyday life, “Unhinged” makes a half-hearted attempt to attribute away its antagonist’s predilection for violence to unspecified ‘mental illness’ but it’s not interested in putting in the effort to expand on that theme. But that’s because this isn’t the film it’s made out to be. This isn’t a pychological thriller at all – this is an eighties-style slasher, it’s just wearing the skin of a psychological thriller.
Harassed single mother Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is struggling to keep things together as she deals with her in-progress divorce, slacker brother, failing business and the school run. One morning, a series of unfortunate events, and a freeway traffic jam, leads to a chance encounter with Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe). A couple of blasts on the horn of her ageing Volvo later and her fate is apparently sealed.
Rocking the lockdown look, Crowe is this movie’s Michael Myers, its Freddy Krueger, its Jason Voorhies: a seemingly unstoppable, inventive and industrious killing machine. Something of a high functioning psychopath, he’s adept at speed reading the entire contents of mobile phones, complex logistical planning and burglarising cars in mere seconds. He’s also royally pissed at the lack of civility in society, one of the many subtle Reaganomic right-wing messages encoded in the film’s subtext. That we should be civil to those threatening us with violence and terror is the most obvious one but the pro-police messaging playing through the opening credits and repeated ad infinitum in the background news broadcasts, is an unmistakable repudiation of the principles behind ‘defund the police’, positing that mental illness is a police matter and that more police is, in fact, the best solution to any social problem you’d care to name. It’s very much in keeping with its resolutely eighties zeitgeist.
While thematically “Unhinged” might not be able to read the room as expertly as Tom Cooper can read the contents of an iPhone, it’s still a wonderfully knowing homage to classic eighties slasher movies, taking the template and tropes and gleefully applying them to as mundane a horror as road rage. My first thought while watching the explosive opening scenes (and, in fact, the first note I wrote down as the movie began) was that the film begins exactly like the beginning of a horror movie, showing the origin of the monster. It’s so loyal to the formula, though, that I was able to write notes in advance, such as ‘he’ll get shot at some point but keep going’. Check.
It’s a great performance from Crowe, though, sometimes evoking a spirit of ‘evil’ Jon Goodman, and he balances just the right amount of menace and camp to maximise his value to the movie. Unfortunately, Caren Pistorius is something of a bland final girl but in her defence, she’s saddled with a character who’s slightly too slow on the uptake and not particularly sympathetically portrayed by a script which is more focused on hitting beats than building characters.
Director Derrick Borte shoots Unhinged in claustrophobic style with lots of tight close-ups and peeping Tom POV shots, keeping the tension high and the audiences focus away from some of the bigger holes in the movie’s set-up. Cooper’s unfettered access to Rachel’s iPhone may be his ‘supernatural’ power but the film keeps things trucking in the hope you won’t realise (as Rachel doesn’t) that it would also be his greatest weakness. Luckily, once Cooper’s rampage begins, it’s punctuated regularly with entertainingly brutal and occasionally gasp-worthy kills, including a homage to the “Final Destination” series amongst the vintage slasher fun.
“Unhinged” offers pulpy, enjoyable b-movie thrills elevated above direct-to-DVD fare by a grandstanding performance from Crowe who almost single-handedly grabs the whole film by the throat and throttles every bit of entertainment the script has to offer and while it might not be packing them into the multiplexes, it’s destined to find (and deserves) a place amongst the midnight movie pantheon.