UNHINGED – Review by Brandy McDonnell

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With major cinema chains finally reopening after their five-month closure due to the coronavirus, the grim and gruesome thriller “Unhinged” is barreling into theaters to claim the title of first wide release in the post-pandemic era.

“Unhinged” works better as the future answer to a trivia question or a cynically blood-soaked riff on the ubiquitous meme “Be kind because everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about” than it does as a quality film.

Oscar winner Russell Crowe stars as “The Man,” a pill-popping, bitterly divorced brute who is essentially toxic masculinity personified. He commits savage murder before the opening credits have even rolled.

A few hours later, he crosses paths on the jam-packed highways of Anywhere, USA (the movie was filmed in New Orleans but is devoid of charm, including any Cajun flavor) with overwhelmed single mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius), who is trying and failing miserably to get her sweetly understanding son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school on time.

Rachel’s life is packed with a grab-bag of modern-day problems: She’s getting a divorce from her deadbeat husband, she recently lost her salon so she’s gigging it as a freelance stylist, her mother has just been moved into a pricey memory care center, and her slacker younger brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) and his girlfriend Mary (Juliene Joyner) are living with her rent-free. So, when Rachel gets stuck behind a brawny pickup that refuses to budge at a green light, she gives two, long frustrated blasts of her horn and then irritably zips around it.

That truck is being driven by “The Man,” who at the next intersection lectures Rachel and her son on the art of the courtesy tap, demands an apology and, when she refuses, promises “I don’t think you know what a bad day is, but you’ll find out.”

He proceeds to mete out sadistic retribution for Rachel’s perceived slight with a series of threatening phone calls, bruising high-speed car chases and vicious murders committed in broad daylight. Swiping Rachel’s cellphone from her car and planting a burner phone in its place, he plays Russian roulette with her contact list, brutally targeting her family, friends and anyone who tries to help her.

“Unhinged” does manage to build tension in its set pieces – particularly when The Man faces off in a diner with Rachel’s best friend and divorce lawyer Andy (Jimmi Simpson), who is unaware she is being stalked – but the outcomes are consistently so obvious and ugly that there’s nothing thrilling about them.

It doesn’t help that the dialogue, shooting style and score all glaringly signal every plot point miles before it arrives, and that the characters’ actions – including those of the police who seem to have no cohesive plan for catching a mass murderer roaming the streets actively killing people – are frustratingly far-fetched.

Written by Carl Ellsworth (“Disturbia”) and directed by Derrick Borte (“London Town”), the film’s frenetic opening credits cite a litany of societal ills – social media, information overload, financial strain, road rage, opioid abuse, incivility – seemingly to make the case that the movie’s “Unhinged” scenario can be the extreme result. It’s a pessimistic and unconvincing case, especially since their ham-fisted film seems to try to justify The Man’s “Maximum Overdrive” reaction to Rachel’s petulant horn usage.

Beefy and glowering, Crowe eagerly chews scenery as The Man, fueling the film sheerly on his intensity, and to her credit, Pistorius holds her own, especially since her character and dialogue are real clunkers.

But the best part about “Unhinged” is the fun, foul-mouthed promo Crowe created in which he channels cheeky wit into his creepy character. It shows that “Unhinged” might have been souped up with some dark comedy, but its makers have taken the road of a much less satisfying film.

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Brandy McDonnell

Brandy McDonnell writes features and reviews movies, music, events and the arts for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma's statewide newspaper, and NewsOK.com, the state's largest news Web site. Raised on a farm near Lindsay, Okla., she started her journalism career in seventh grade, when she was elected reporter for her school's 4-H Club. Taking her duties seriously, she began submitting stories to The Lindsay News, and worked for the local weekly through high school. She attended Oklahoma State University, where she worked for The Daily O'Collegian and earned her journalism degree with honors. She worked for three years at small Oklahoma dailies The Edmond Sun and Shawnee News-Star. In 2002, she joined The Oklahoman as a features reporter, writing about movies, the arts, events, families and nonprofits. She moved to The Oklahoman's entertainment desk in 2007. In 2004, she won a prestigious Journalism Fellowship in Child & Family Policy from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Along with her membership in AWFJ, she also is a founding member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. Brandy writes The Week In Women blog for AWFJ.org.