There’s a specific strand of criticism that pegs modern action/thriller movies as inferior to other films in the genre from thirty to forty years ago. They offer many explanations and pieces of evidence to back up this claim, but one of their biggest criticisms today has to do with the overuse of CGI. Back in the eighties and early nineties, computer generated effects were still very much in their infancy. This forced directors to film most of their scenes with real-world effects, with only the odd use of miniatures and matte backgrounds here and there. According to the people who despise modern action, these movies from the eighties and nineties felt more real, making the action more exciting. It turns out that those critics were wrong, because the new film Unhinged seldom relies on computer generated effects, and still manages to be a mostly mediocre film.
Unhinged comes from director Derrick Borte, whose previous works include The Joneses, H8RZ, and American Dreamer. It was written by Carl Ellsworth, best known for writing the film Disturbia and working for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. The film stars Caren Pistorius as lead character Rachel Hunter, Jimmi Simpson as her friend/divorce attorney Andy, and Russell Crowe as the eponymous Tom Hooper, a recently divorced man who’s already murdered his ex-wife in a spout of insanity. When Rachel inadvertently gets into an altercation with Hooper on the highway that quickly turns hostile, Hooper takes it upon himself in a fit of road rage attempt to ruin her life as much as possible.
Crowe’s performance as the deranged Hooper is what sells the movie. While not an excellent performance and not even close to some of his greater performances, Crowe manages to come across as both imbittered and completely manic. His maniacal ramblings to Pistorius’s character about needing to ‘learn what a bad day really looks like’ are utterly menacing. The film would probably have benefitted from spending a bit more time on Hooper and his backstory for better understanding of him. Virtually the only bits of backstory we the audience are explicitly given about Hooper is that he’s divorced and has lost his job and pension. While more could have been done with the character’s background, it is nevertheless brought to life with a well-done performance from Crowe.
A good villainous performance alone cannot support a film and Unhinged unfortunately fails to make an impact outside of this performance. While Crowe is entertaining and frightening, Pistorius often falls flat in comparison. For a woman who spends the majority of the film running to save her life and the lives of her friends and family, Pistorius’s performance often comes across as oddly muted, devoid of energy. With much of the film’s runtime being long and suspenseful phone conversations between Rachel and Hooper, it’s disappointing to not be as invested as possible on account of Pistorius’s performance.
The direction of the film might also contribute to feelings of disconnect with the action/emotion. Many of the action scenes are incredibly generic and bare-boned, and there’s a bit of obvious foreshadowing at the beginning of the film that has hardly any payoff whatsoever. A good way to put this issue of directing into perspective would be to simply use one of the earlier scenes as an example. Towards the beginning of the film, Rachel realizes that she accidentally slept in and has to get her son to school and herself to work to avoid losing her job/getting her son detention for being late. While en route, Rachel receives a distressing phone call from her husband, whom she is in the process of divorcing. All of these things, especially the race against the clock aspect of Rachel trying to get her son to school and herself to work in time, would likely conjure up a very tense and stressful sequence, but that isn’t the case. This portion of the film feels incredibly lethargic and slow-paced, which runs completely counter to the conflict at hand. If it weren’t for the fact that we are told that Rachel’s running late we’d never have known. It’s understandable that a film might not want to be too stressful early on, as later tense situations won’t feel as impactful comparatively. At the same time though, the opportunity to relate to Rachel and her struggles was there, and the film failed to capitalize on it. There are several other moments like this throughout the film where action and emotion in scenes suffer from less than stellar direction.
An aspect of the film that was merely hinted at but never capitalized on was the idea of male entitlement. There are some inklings of important topics in gender politics in this film, namely tone-policing and the beliefs in ‘traditional values’ that Crowe’s character seems to espouse, but nothing is done with it, and these elements merely fade away gradually. It’s disappointing as the plot seems like it could have been somewhat elevated by the gender politics, but either the script, the direction, or both came together in a way that these topics are never utilized to their fullest.
Russell Crowe is a very good actor, and his performance in this film is almost something of a testament to his ability to bring characters to life, helping to turn a below-average movie into something that can still be enjoyed. That doesn’t undo the film’s problems, however, and a lackluster lead actress, combined with missed opportunities and strange directorial decisions, result in a largely unengaging and vanilla film. Fans of action/thrillers and fans of Crowe as an actor will probably get something out of Unhinged, but their time could be better spent on innumerable amounts of thrillers with far more character and far superior executions of concepts.