Unhinged is the type of film that should resonate with daily commuters. It’s a road rage thriller pitting a deranged Russell Crowe against a struggling mother who’s juggling her life, her son, her unemployed brother and her divorce. Caren Pistorius plays Rachel Hunter, the struggling mother who’s frantically working to save herself from one of cinema’s craziest of road ragers.

Crowe plays Tom Cooper who, during the film’s prologue, is seen murdering a couple in their home and setting the house on fire – with the dead couple in it. It quickly establishes Tom’s cruelty and his misogyny (director Derrick Borte later reveals Tom’s relationship to the couple). In the nicest way possible,Tom is not a charming man - certainly bad news for anyone who gets on his bad side.

Those crimes occur the evening before Rachel encounters Tom. While she’s driving her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman, 2019’s Child’s Play) to school, Tom is stuck at a green light with Rachel and Kyle behind him. A frustrated Rachel honks her horn and aggressively drives around Tom. Tom catches up to Rachel and Kyle, demanding an apology. But once Rachel refuses, it’s game on. Tom’s reaction is stuff of terror – he becomes a road rager in the worst sense. But ironically, there’s a bit of Tom in all of us (to which I offer endless internet footage of motorists going off on each other).

This is the first film performance I’ve seen from Crowe since his turn as a homophobic preacher in 2018’s Boy Erased. He was fantastic in that true-life drama and he’s nothing short of phenomenal in Unhinged. What’s scary is he seems too comfortable playing crazy and high strung – he got fatter, scruffier and disheveled, which is all too becoming of a man like Tom (I liken Tom to a supersized Samwise Gamgee with a Gollum complex). Crowe is scary good to the point where I wish screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye, Disturbia) had provided more depth. Tom isn’t far removed from William Foster, the down-on-his-luck man who loses his grip, played flawlessly by Michael Douglas in 1993’s Falling Down. Tom, though, isn’t taking a social stand – he’s just crazy, while the opioids he’s taking don’t help.

Instead of fleshing out Unhinged’s most interesting character, Tom is a one-note pony who adheres to a typical film trope (in Tom’s case, a man "pushed to the brink with violent reactions").

Interestingly, it’s that trope which Borte likes exploring (at least recently). He prefers to highlight everyday struggles, then posits them within extreme scenarios. Borte uses Unhinged to notate the stresses of the daily commute, then dials it up to 11, leaving viewers to determine where they lie on the road rage scale.  

Acting across from Crowe is Pistorius, whose most visible role was likely in the poorly received box office failure Mortal Engines. Originally from South Africa, the 29-year-old actress is fine, but her character is frustrating. Rachel’s not well-written, makes poor choices which clearly serve to move the story along, and doesn’t convincingly lose it. The only time Pistorius emotes any real fear is when Rachel pulls Kyle out of school. The rest of the time Pistorius plays Rachel as surprisingly calm, or maybe she’s just not convincing enough to emote fear. Either way, Pistorius’ performance pales in comparison to Crowe’s and Unhinged suffers because of it.

Worth noting – director Derrick Borte is a Hampton Roads (in Virginia) local. Born in Germany, Derrick and his parents relocated to Norfolk, VA, when he was still a baby, eventually graduating from First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach and Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Borte shot one of his films in and around Norfolk – 2018’s American Dreamer, a crime thriller with comedian Jim Gaffigan in a serious role (playing another hapless man going down a rabbit hole).

Made on a rumored budget of $33 million, Unhinged plays better as a viable streaming option rather than a wide-release choice. It is considered the first feature released in U.S. theaters since reopening, a distinction that doesn’t mean much considering its underdeveloped concept, while filmgoers aren’t all too keen with un-Gladiator-like Russell Crowe.

Still, it’s an interesting watch, especially if your expectation level is low.

2.5 stars out of 5

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