There’s a new movie called “Unhinged.” Russell Crowe plays the title role.
It’s a weird part for a guy who, not many years ago, was winning awards and headlining blockbusters. Crowe plays a version of those anonymous killers in slasher films, a Jason or a Michael Myers, minus the mask and back story. Unlike those maniacs, he doesn’t even get a name. At one point he offers a fake one, but the only thing we know for sure is he’s intent on slaughtering as many strangers as he can from behind the wheel of his pickup.
It’s not a particularly good or original film — “Changing Lanes” and Steven Spielberg’s classic “Duel” are among the movies that already slid their dipsticks in this engine — but “Unhinged” gets some oomph from the paranoid reality of the situation that heroine Rachel (Caren Pistorius) finds herself in. Late for work and her son’s school drop-off, the Louisiana single mom angrily passes another driver (Crowe), who has just finished hammer-murdering what seems to be his entire family and who resolves to add Rachel and her son to the body count.
We’ve all driven angry. We’ve all honked when we shouldn’t have. We’ve all let our phones run out of juice. We’ve all made vehicular maneuvers we shouldn’t have because we were late for something that seemed, in the moment, to be important. Those real-life elements give “Unhinged” an it-could-actually-happen fascination.
Most of us will never encounter a road rageaholic like Crowe, who announces that he expects his life to end in death-by-cop. But most of us are probably aware that we’ve been in situations where we were fortunate to stay safe, which is why the feeling that the “Unhinged” scenario is possible, if unlikely, is compelling. So are the methods by which the killer dispatches his victims, which are as baroque and bloody as any “Final Destination” death.
It was probably a good idea to keep a sense of mystery about the Crowe character, much like Spielberg’s decision never to let us see or hear the truck driver who raged against a motorist in “Duel.” Crowe is fine at being menacing for no apparent reason, and his lingering star power helped “Unhinged” become the first wide-release movie in theaters since March, but the “Gladiator” Oscar winner is not given much to do in a role that “Duel” already demonstrated could be played by two forearms on a steering wheel.
Pistorius has more to work with, and she nicely modulates her character’s growing terror, but the movie’s attitude toward her character is troubling. A quick list of minor screw-ups at the beginning of the movie seems designed to make us wonder if our sympathies should lie with her or the truck driver. Even when she has paid an enormous price for honking at the guy, “Unhinged” is not exactly saying she deserved to be terrorized on the streets of New Orleans, but it’s not not saying that, either.
Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth wrote “Red Eye” and “Disturbia,” a pair of deft thrillers built on equally paranoid premises, but both had more wit and humanity than “Unhinged,” which feels like it might work better as a short film, stripped to a lean, mean 30 minutes or so. “Unhinged” is quite short — if you don’t count the lengthy credits, it’s well under 90 minutes, another way it resembles a slasher film — but, by the end, it’s clearly running out of gas.