In the pre-credit sequence of Unhinged, the new road-rage thriller from director Derrick Borte, Russell Crowe munches on painkillers in an enormous pickup truck as heavy rain batters his windshield. It's 4:30 a.m., and Crowe's Paul Bunyan-esque leading man is angry, as he'll remain for the duration of the 90-minute film.
He takes off his wedding ring and flings it to the backseat. He lights a match and lets it burn out on his fingers. Moments later, once the pills have begun to take effect, he grabs an industrial-grade crowbar and breaks through the front door of a suburban house and murders what is presumably his ex-wife and her new man. He sets the house ablaze.
Reports of the murder and arson are all over the morning news as Rachel (Caren Pistorius) and her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) get a late start to their day. Rachel is recently divorced — she awakes on the couch next to a copy of How to Help Your Child Cope With Divorce, to clue the audience in — and generally presents as a person who doesn't quite have her life together.
Indeed, as Rachel rushes to get Kyle to school, her "top client" fires her for routine tardiness — she is a private hairdresser — and Rachel takes out her frustration at a stoplight, honking loudly when the driver in front of her fails to accelerate on green.
Go figure. The driver turns out to be the man from the opening murders, who's still very angry. Much of the film's exposition is conveyed through news reports on TV and radio, and we later learn that the man was denied his pension, and endured a nasty divorce of his own, during which he felt mistreated by his wife's attorney.
All that and the pre-dawn crowbar murders have conspired to put him in a volatile head space.
He pulls up alongside Rachel and Kyle at the next light and asks for an apology. When Rachel refuses, he tells her he's going to show her what a really bad day looks like. The rest of the film is him doing just that, killing Rachel's friends and family in a gruesome spree that's about as credible as it is entertaining. Which is to say not at all.
Crowe's deficiencies are a result of both minimal effort and an atrocious script, which casts him as a beleaguered man viewing violence as his only chance to "make a mark." But his character has exactly one note: rage. Rachel and her orbit are also drawn in the broadest possible outlines, shoddy work indeed from scriptwriter Carl Ellsworth, (Red Eye, Disturbia). Rachel's third-act transformation from frazzled divorcee to bad-ass mama bear comes out of nowhere, which can't be said for the city's law enforcement.
But the most eye-rolling aspect of the film is its attempts to preach. The bloody narrative it chronicles is presented as the result of incivility. And because the script is vectored toward individual responsibility as opposed to systemic oppression, it's Rachel who Unhinged bizarrely decides to teach a lesson. Late in the film, she nearly honks her horn, but thinks again! If only she'd been more courteous earlier on, the film seems to posit, the men's-rights lunatic on a suicide mission wouldn't have hunted down her loved ones.
It's tough viewing from start to finish, but the pre-credit murder sequence, absent dialogue and coldly shot from a distance, is actually brutally effective in its capacity to disturb. When Unhinged launches into the credits — replete with news clips of actual road rage — and the inane story that follows, it's just brutal.