UNHINGED (2020) – Review
In the realm of classic animated shorts, many plots hinged on the main character (often the “series star”) losing their patience, as their frustrations cause them to go into “action” or even “revenge” mode (often with the sight gag of steam spewing from their ears or through the tops of their noggins). Popeye’s “I’s had all I kin’ stan’ an’ I can’t stands no more!”, Bugs Bunny’s “Of course you realize this means war!”. and even Droopy Dog’s “Know what? I’m mad.”. This would spill into live-action flicks, with the gentle cowboy or farmer taking a stand. In the 1970s, epitomized by NETWORK’s Howard Beale ranting, “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not gonna’ take it anymore!”, the normal guy, the everyman was pushed into the breaking point in comedies like THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE and thrillers like DEATH WISH (and its many sequels and rip-offs). As the decades passed, this theme took a much darker turn particularly in 1993’s FALLING DOWN with Michael Douglas striking back at his oppressors until he became more of a monster than any of them. After an exasperating five months, we’re being lured back (cautiously) to theatres with another Oscar-winning lead to take down all who would chip away at his dignity and sense of “fair play”. Yes, this is a dude who’s completely UNHINGED.
The story begins (as do most of Snoopy’s best) on a dark and stormy night. Behind the wheel of a leviathan-sized sports truck sits “The Man” AKA Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe), a mountain of rage and oozing sweat, washing down prescription pills with cans of cold brew, and staring intensely at a suburban two-story (even as he lets a match burn down to his fingers). Finally, he crawls out of the cab and leaves behind a scene of death and destruction when he slides back in and drives away. On another side of town, soon -to-be-single mother Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is rattled from her slumber by a call from her divorce attorney Andy (Jimmi Simpson). He’s got more bad news, the least of which is that she didn’t set her alarm. She’s got to drop her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) off to school on her way to work as a hairstylist at an exclusive salon. After a quick breakfast with her “rent-free” roommate brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) and his fiance Mary (Juliene Joyner), while the morning news features an on-the-scene report from last night’s carnage, Rachel and Kyle hop in her run-down SUV, “engine light” flashin’ all the way. Traffic on the major streets is at a standstill. As is the highway. The only choice is those iffy “side streets”. As the cars thin out, Rachel finds herself behind a huge truck that will not heed the green “go” light. She leans on her horn and zips around it just in time to join another “jam”. And who pulls up beside them? The offended truck driver, Mr. Cooper. He rolls down the window for a nice lil’ “chit chat” and suggests that she apologizes. He is very disappointed in Rachel’s response. So much so that “teaching her some manners” becomes his sacred mission. Thus begins a deadly game of “hide and seek” (more like “find and maim”), one the stretches over several miles and countless agonizing hours.
And that’s not counting this most agonizing hour and a half (the runtime). Ugh, this hardworking cast certainly doesn’t deserve this punishment, but they neither do we. Michael Douglas emerged fairly unscathed from that 90s thriller I mentioned earlier. The same can’t be said for Mr. Crowe, but he didn’t suffer as much as Dennis Quaid did in last year’s dim-witted thriller THE INTRUDER (thankfully no face-licking here). Perhaps we’re now seeing a sixty-year flip on those “mature actress” nail-biters like WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, LADY IN A CAGE, or DIE, DIE MY DARLING. Instead of the “glamour queens” we’re getting the former “leading men” now playing monster menaces. On this front Crowe goes all in, teeth gritted, eyes and nostrils flaring through an everpresent “sweat glaze”, literally Hell on wheels. In a couple of brief sequences, his character dons a mask (not a hockey one) of genteel civility, though it never seems to “fit”. This repugnant “shaved Grizzly” is not much of a challenge to the still gifted actor (really, check out BOY ERASED or THE WATER DIVINER from the last five years). Perhaps he thought it would be fun “slumming” in this urban horror tale (didn’t work out that way for the audience). And though he gets “top billing” the story’s main focus is Pistorius’s Rachel who is played as a cliched frazzled (soon to be), divorcee, right from a basic cable-TV “rom-com”. That’s until the plot requires her to put up a hard-edged “front” in order to raise the “ire” of Cooper. Pistorius does emote the right degree of frenzied panic even as she tosses common sense out the window in order to get going to another “white knuckle” bit. The talented Simpson is wasted as another bit of “cannon fodder” for the “beast-man”, while Bateman does well as Rachel’s frustrated perplexed pre-teen who is, of course, a tech whiz (at least they didn’t toss in the “surly attitude” cliche).
At least director Derrick Borte keeps the story moving during its 90-minute runtime, though many of the scares are telegraphed early by ham-fisted editing, constant close-ups, and thunderous background music and noises (there’s little difference). Oh, but that story. After the first act, Carl Ellsworth tosses out every bit of reality, charging along, driven by Cooper. right into the land of lunacy, bursting through any reasonable “suspension of disbelief”. When a brutal, vicious murder occurs in a crowded well-lit area, and absolutely no one approaches Cooper (two or three could tackle even a man of his, to put it gently, “considerable girth”) I exploded with the first of many animal excrement declarations (a good thing the theatres aren’t open for advance review showings). This is part of an incredibly intricate plan that Cooper hatches just moments after the traffic signal clash (phones are switched, and devices hidden within seconds). And soon the meanie’s “ever-presence” becomes a tired bit of business (think Droopy the Mountie minus any style and wit). Everything finally collides (literally) when call-backs to the first act (“Where’s my candy-cane….?”) spill over autos that escaped from the FAST AND THE FURIOUS realm of near-zero gravity (or gravitas). It’s good that the city remains nameless since no law enforcement appears till midway through the mayhem, which may be why the “wanted” Cooper (in the first eight minutes) is leisurely cruising the many maze-like streets. It all collapses in a heap with a final fade-out denouncement that will surprise nobody, but baffle anybody who’s seen the Police operate in any capacity. UNHINGED is unbearable, unbelievable, and nearly unwatchable save for some skilled stunt work. That raises it from zero to…
One-Half Out of Four
UNHINGED is playing in select theatres and drive-ins everywhere