Monday Movie Review: Unhinged (2020)

I’ve been on the road this weekend to my fourth Universal Studios trip in the calendar year. I’ll be writing about that more tomorrow, but the time on the road reminded me of a flick I picked up on RedBox last week, Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe.

The movie’s premise is terrifyingly simple: a harried single mom, running late to get her son to school after being fired from her job for excessive tardiness, ticks off the wrong driver.  When a large truck fails to pull out from a green light, the mom lays on the horn and swerves around the distracted driver.  He then pursues her for the rest of the day, systematically killing her family and friends.

It’s a very taut thriller, all the more frightening because the villain is someone anyone with exceptionally bad luck could run into.  Russell Crowe plays the character horrifyingly well, and is truly remorseless (in one scene, he murders the single mother’s divorce attorney in broad daylight in a crowded diner, as guests look on in horror—but none intervening).

A major theme of Unhinged is the rise of distracted driving and road rage:  as our lives become more filled with digital distractions and the constant demand to stay connected, we’re venting our frustrations behind the wheel.  The inability to escape work, the news, entertainment, and everything else our cell phones offer fills us with constant anxiety and dread, which manifests itself in shockingly spontaneous and casual acts of violence and hate.

At times, the movie sends some mixed messages.  The villain justifies his murderous streak by claiming he’s the victim of an ungrateful ex-wife (who he murders in the opening frames of the film) and a company that laid him off after years of faithful service.  In this regard, there’s an element of Falling Down (1993) in the film:  a hardworking man with his own demons driven to a murderous rampage due to the callousness of modernity.  It’s an attempt to humanize a truly monstrous individual (in Falling Down, there is some real sympathy with the main character, who is both mentally unstable and a legitimate victim of an indifferent world).

On the other hand, the heroine is clearly a mess:  she’s a single mom going through a complicated divorce from a man who doesn’t seem so much bad, just extremely lazy.  She herself can’t get her life together, and lives in a state of chaos:  constantly running late to work (which gets her fired), unable to make rational decisions, and constantly letting down her son.  She sleeps on a couch in her brother’s house.  We’re supposed to be sympathetic to her—she’s clearly not evil like Crowe’s characters—but her carelessness put her into the situation.  Not to blame the victim, but her life would be much better if she practiced a modicum of self-control.

At the end of the film, after surviving Crowe’s carnage, the mom begins to lay on her horn after a driver runs a stop sign, but thinks better of it—after all, you never know who’s behind the wheel.  Is the whole movie, then, a morality tale about the consequences of road rage?  Or is it about the dangers of distracted driving?  The needless anxieties of the modern world?  The message is muddled.

Regardless, it’s a good movie.  It doesn’t live up to Falling Down or a similar film, Stephen Spielberg’s debut Duel (1971), but the lengths to which the villain goes to teach the mom “what it means to ‘have a bad day'” are terrifying.  The flick manages to keep the tension high over the course of its ninety-minute runtime, and that’s really what a film like this is about—keeping it tight until the audience is nearly… Unhinged.

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