Russell Crowe as the Man
Caren Pistorius as Rachel
Gabriel Bateman as Kyle
Jimmi Simpson as Andy
Austin P. McKenzie as Fred
Anne Leighton as Deborah Haskell
Directed by Derrick Borte; Written by Carl Ellsworth
As someone who lives in Los Angeles, I know all too well the struggle of road rage, both dealing with my own while also worrying about how extreme someone else may take it. The road has become an even more dangerous place over the years and though there have been a number of great road rage thrillers over the years, Derrick Borte’s Unhinged taps into this fear in a truly realistic, if a bit familiar, fashion.
Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is running late to work when she has an altercation at a traffic light with a stranger (Russell Crowe) whose life has left him feeling powerless and invisible. Soon, Rachel finds herself, and everyone she loves, the target of a man who decides to make one last mark upon the world by teaching her a series of deadly lessons. What follows is a dangerous game of cat and mouse that proves you never know just how close you are to someone who is about to become unhinged.
The struggling single mother trope is a concept frequently explored in the horror genre and has been used properly in the past to help establish a crafty and intelligent protagonist, and though Rachel does frequently make smarter choices than the average female hero, she still frequently feels underdeveloped. Be it the 90-minute runtime or the filmmakers’ desire to get audiences into the action as quickly as possible, there doesn’t feel like enough time given to better setting up Rachel as someone we should root for, other than the fact Russell Crowe’s stranger is clearly a lunatic and she’s a single mom.
Even at the start of the film when we’re introduced to both Rachel and Kyle, the latter has to offer the reminder that not only is he going to be late to school, but also that she has a client she is going to be late to getting to. If you’re asking yourself or me through your screen what kind of client, I wish I could tell you, because even as said client calls during their drive to school and fires her, the best I can assume is that she works at some kind of salon. This may not be that much of an important point for the overall plot of the film, aside from that she’s at her own wit’s end, but it would just feel like a nice touch if we got a handful of lines stating she’s having her own problems at a specific job she has rather than leaving the audience to assume this or to play the guessing game as to her profession.
Once the film does get to the action, however, the excitement does truly begin and the tension in the film is truly nail-biting. From Rachel’s decision to drive on the shoulders of freeways to escape traffic to the very claustrophobic nature of the unspecified city’s surface streets, it was hard not to be on the edge of my metaphorical seat once she got in the car, just waiting for when one wrong turn or honk of the horn would set things off.
Though he’s not given an explicit backstory, or even a name, it’s not hard to figure out the motivations and backstory of Crowe’s character, but that doesn’t make him any less compelling. The brutality he puts into this world, both on the road and on foot, is nothing short of haunting, as it all feels very grounded in authenticity. There are absolutely people out there nowadays that are closer to this unnamed maniac than there are to Rutger Hauer’s Hitcher, and thanks to some decent writing and a phenomenal performance from the Oscar winner, he is brought to life in brilliant fashion that makes him one of the most chilling antagonists any road movie has seen.
The action itself is also filmed in thrilling fashion, with Borte keeping the camera close to allow the excellent performances from Crowe and Pistorius to grace the screen while still knowing how to gracefully cut back out wide for some of the bigger set pieces without feeling too jarring or scattershot. The multiple vehicle pileups and fast-paced car chases throughout the city are electric and keep the pace of the film moving at a swift speed so as to not lose its audience even in its shortened runtime.
This film, however, does call for one thing, and that’s for Caren Pistorius to be the lead of more action and thriller projects, because not only does she help bring her mostly smart character to life, but she does so in such great fashion. Her delivery of both her emotionally-distraught lines alongside her more badass moments is perfection and just begs for filmmakers in Hollywood or around the globe to put her at the forefront of another project in the same energetic vein as Unhinged.
Overall, the film may not have much originality in its character development or story itself, but with a terrifying antagonist that grips the audience and never lets go, a fairly authentic telling of the dangers of road rage and thrilling performances from Crowe and Pistorius, this is one hell of a ride and brings this sub-genre back to life in electric fashion.