Though no one would ever accused Unhinged of being ambitious, it’s ruthlessly efficient. It takes a premise that’s as high-concept as they come, does everything it needs to with it, then exits gracefully. And while this leanness is certainly a point in its favor, what really makes it worth watching is Russell Crowe’s towering villain turn.
After a chilling prologue which sees Crowe’s unnamed psychopath murdering his ex-wife and her new husband, we’re briskly introduced to Rachel (Caren Pistorius), our scattered heroine. In the midst of an ugly divorce, she struggles to support her 15-year-old son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) and her slacker younger brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie). After a particularly bad day that sees her losing her biggest source of income, she snaps at a fellow driver for a minor mistake. The driver, of course, is our killer from earlier; and Rachel has just unwittingly set him on a rampage against her and her loved ones – some of it on the road, courtesy of his massive pick-up truck, some of it up close and personal.
And what a rampage it is. Unhinged racks up a surprisingly robust body count given the constraints of the movie, most of it courtesy of some nasty collateral damage on the road. This, along with some other daring choices, gives the movie an uncompromising mean streak that sets it apart from more tepid thriller fare. Crowe also deserves credit here, giving his nameless killer real menace. His recent weight gain gives him a hulking, distinctly American physical presence, which pairs nicely with a soft-spoken voice that carries an undertone of instability. It’s an undoubtedly big performance, but played straight enough to never sacrifice its effectiveness; a dark portrait of a violent man with absolutely nothing left to lose.
Unhinged borrows its essential premise from the likes of Duel and Joyride, but pares it down to its essence, taking place over the course of a single day and rarely stopping to catch its breath. The lean and mean story is punctuated by a series of punchy, exciting car chases that never outstay their welcome; the same can’t be said for some of the movie’s pedestrian on-foot detours. Crowe is never less than compelling when he’s on screen, but a few too many scenes of Rachel making frantic cell phone calls, as well as some flat attempts at social commentary, fail to make an impression.
But Unhinged never idles in one place for too long, overcoming its narrative flimsiness through shear breakneck speed. It keeps its foot on the gas all the way to its enjoyably silly final showdown; which sees both Rachel and Crowe’s psychopath suddenly imbued with superhuman durability. Sadly, the movie is let down by a safe, wimpy ending that dulls its edge. Something less tidy and more audacious might have cemented Unhinged as a B-Movie gem; as is, it’s an entertaining, but forgettable, rainy-day watch.