Driving has an uncanny ability to unleash the worst in people. It’s the right combination of high-speed danger, intoxicating power, and an air of anonymity behind closed windows that turns normally reasonable people into foaming lunatics. If I’m Dr. Jekyll in normal life, then I’m Mr. Hyde behind the wheel. All it takes is for someone to not use their blinker, come too close to my lane, or go the speed limit for me to lose my mind or loose my insults. Occasionally, I’ll hear my parents’ voices in my head; first, my mom’s go-to reply to my angry outbursts: “Don’t say that; you don’t know what kind of day they are having.” Then, my dad’s reminder to drive defensively, as if everyone on the road was out to kill me. Both pieces of advice, however irritating, would go a long way towards preventing the events of Unhinged (2020) from happening in real life. The scariest part? To some extent, they already are.
Unhinged tells the story of a traffic encounter between Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe), a man whose troubles have him slowly eroding into murderous apathy, and Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius), a single Mom under heavy financial and familial stress. Tom zones out at a traffic light and Rachel honks at him angrily for not going when the light turns green (incidentally I did this on my way to the theater). Then, in the most relatable of awkward situations, the man she just cussed out pulls up alongside her at the next light. Their exchange provokes his wrath to the point where he pursues her the rest of the film. The encounters build in ferocity as Tom terrorizes without restraint and Rachel finds herself a victim of the worst road rage imaginable.
I feel that the movie did a great job of reflecting on the state of our society, exhibited blatantly by behavior in traffic. While it by no means condones or seeks to redeem the violence Tom inflicts on others, Unhinged provokes a frightening question; even if Rachel escapes Tom, how many people like him are out there? How far are we ourselves from becoming unhinged? Regardless of whether Rachel bests Tom or not, the environment that facilitates his rampage still exists, both in the film and outside the theater. My personal interest in this film came largely from the fact that my favorite actor was playing the villain. Though he won a Golden Globe last year for portraying Roger Ailes, he expressed hesitation for this role. Having seen the film, I can understand his concern; Tom is brutal, unrelenting, and out for blood. He doesn’t care if he’s caught, he just wants to cause some damage first. In one scene, he explained his disillusion with life and I totally bought it; though I did not empathize, his attempt at pathos was grounded in the reality of our societal condition without getting too preachy. The movie claims “he can happen to anyone” and supports this thesis outstandingly.
Relatability is what made the movie for me. Situations that are most eating at our characters are every day in nature; finances, divorce, education, health expenses, living with family, and just trying to be on time for things. I almost feel that “stress”, while not as grabby as “unhinged”, is probably more descriptive of the film’s focus. People that encounter Tom and Rachel are for the most part checked out, disconnected, and uncompassionate. Carl Ellsworth penned the screenplays for fantastic thrillers like Disturbia (2007) and Red Eye (2005), and likewise created an effective and believable set-up that carried a well-earned intensity throughout Unhinged. But he is also responsible for three lines of dialogue that I found more annoying than my parents’ backseat driving. They really ruined the seriousness and thrill of this film for me. Other thrillers involving vehicular stalkers like Joy Ride (2001) have a healthy helping of cheesiness that enhances the intensity. For the most part, Unhinged was real and unflinching without any sign of letting off the gas pedal. So when it gets cheesy, it’s as jarring as a fender bender. That, along with an ending that made me feel like I was watching a government-sponsored-ad for safe driving, soured what should have soared.
In spite of my petty complaints, I’ve spent the weekend trying to convince people to come with me to see it again. What better compliment can you give a film? Occasionally timely and ultimately thrilling, I believe Unhinged is worth your time and just as intense as advertised. A rated-R road-rage thriller might not be everyone’s first choice, but if you can stomach the 90-minute ride, you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat.
Recommendation: Go See It!