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UNHINGED (2020) review

August 24, 2020



written by: Carl Ellsworth
produced by: Lisa Ellzey, Andrew Gunn and Mark Gill
directed by: Derrick Borte
rated: R (for strong violent content, and language throughout)
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: August 21, 2020 (limited)


The opening of “Unhinged” succeeds at making the audience feel disturbed and uncomfortable. The title of Derrick Borte’s thriller describes the ruthless antagonist who will be following the surprised protagonist throughout the length of this story from screenwriter Carl Ellsworth. From the antagonist’s actions in this early morning opening sequence, it appears he became “unhinged” sometime before we meet him and this is the shocking start to a day in which he will let loose…The Man (as he is credited) is like a loaded powder keg, which on this day can seemingly be lit by anyone who can spark an off-putting flame.

That person happens to be Rachel Flynn (Caren Pistorius), who will unsuspectingly set off The Man (Russell Crowe) at an intersection later on that same morning, not knowing what horrific violence he is capable of.

But first, we meet Rachel at her home where she lives with her teenage son, Kyle (Gabriel Batemen), her younger brother, Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) and his fiance, Mary (Juliene Joyner). She awakens on a couch, having fallen asleep reading How to Help Your Child Cope with Divorce, only to realize (with help from her son) that it’s one of those mornings where she is once again running late. The call from her lawyer, Andy (who she is supposed to meet for breakfast) telling her that her ex wants the house, doesn’t help either. As she scrambles to get going, she mentions to her brother that it might be time to chip in a little as Kyle reminds her that if he is late one more time, he’ll get a detention at school.




As they make their way to drop Kyle off to school, there is a mounting sense of anxiety and frustration coming from Rachel. There are pressures happening in her life that are beyond her control, but she knows that oversleeping did not help at all. With local traffic dragging, she gets the idea to take the highway to Kyle’s school, much to his chagrin as he indicates that hasn’t proven fortuitous in the past. Nevertheless, she joins other vehicles on the highway and at this time she gets a phone call from one of her best clients (apparently, she makes money as a hair dresser), who fires here on the spot, tired of always running late and lying about it. There is also a call from her ex, who proceeds to tell a disappointed Kyle that he’s too busy with work to take him out to the game. These are elements that add up to what is beginning to be a really bad day for Rachel.

There are other elements revealed to the audience right away that will add up and obviously pay off later on. When Rachel gets into the car, the camera notices that her gas gauge is on empty and when her Kyle uses her iPhone in the car, he recognizes that she has no passcode for her phone. These are just a couple dog-eared indicators in a plot filled with tip-offs that play out later in the story. It’s not an awful thing to notice such elements when watching a thriller unfold, but when so many add up in one tight and economically paced thriller it falls somewhere between distracting and eye-rolling.

Rachel’s day is about to get worse. As she exits early off the highway, she winds up behind a guzzling gray pick-up who has stopped at the light at the end of the exit ramp. The light turns green and the pick-up doesn’t move. This is just one more added stressor in Rachel’s morning and in one of many relatable (albeit unwise) moves, she lays on the horn twice, swerves around the pick-up and drives off. On any other day in any other movie, that would’ve probably been the last time Rachel sees that pick-up, but we know the driver behind the wheel is “Unhinged”.




That guzzling pick-up catches up to Rachel and Kyle and pulls up alongside her at another intersection and motions for her to roll down her window as he leans out his own. She isn’t having it, but her unassuming son pulls down his window in the back seat. The Man proceeds to talk to Rachel through Kyle’s open window, apologizes for zoning out at the intersection, offers the definition of a “courtesy tap” and asks her for an apology she they can both be on their separate ways. Rachel, doing her best to ignore this stranger and already stressed, becomes irritable in her quick verbal exchange, stating she’s “having a bad day” before she is able to drive off and hopefully be done with him.
Well, we know she’s not since the last thing The Man tells her is “I don’t think you really know what a bad day is, but you’re gonna find out”.

The rest of “Unhinged” becomes a ferocious and relentless pursuit, in which Crowe’s looming, formidable character tracks down Rachel in an attempt to fulfill his threat. In the process, he eliminates anyone in gets in the way or anyone close to Rachel in a shocking and alarming manner that she either sees with her own eyes or hears with her ears (which can be even more upsetting).

The stakes in this pursuit change once The Man steals Rachel’s phone, which she unknowingly leaves on the console in her car while she pays for her gas (another dumb move that becomes all to obvious thanks to the movies’s camerawork) and purchases five Powerball quick picks. Of course, we know she had no passcode in place on her phone that would prevent anyone from gaining access to important information like texts, pictures, contact info with addresses and bank account apps. What would he have done if she did had a passcode in place on her phone? Who knows. It’s unclear what his prior occupation was, just that he “has a history of substance abuse and violence after a work-related injury”, which was heard on a local news blurb on the television Rachel’s brother was watching earlier.




Rachel now knows what this crazy guy is capable and as his ominous pick-up gets closer in her rear-view mirror, she searches frantically for her phone. The Man speeds up alongside her and waves her phone at her with a smile and it becomes even more clear that she is in over her head. When she hears a phone ring from inside the arm rest of her vehicle she pulls out a flip phone which he placed in order for them to communicate. As Rachel desperately searches for the safest way out of his sudden predicament, The Man taunts her by reading aloud her text interactions, commenting on her photos and leaves the day’s agenda up to Rachel, as he asks her to choose who from her Contact list will die – will it be her mother who was recently placed in a healthcare facility or her son who is now at school?

In a movie like this, viewers should be aware that anyone Rachel enlists for help will suffer greatly and it will inevitably be up to Rachel to get out of her dire situation. The piercing graphic violence The Man dispenses on Andy (a great Jimmi Simpson) at the diner and on Fred and his fiancé back at Rachel’s home is squirm-inducing and intense, like something out of an 80s slasher or a 90s thriller. How Rachel learns of these grisly encounters is even more horrifying. She will definitely have to fight back in some way and protect her son at the same time, which culminates in an climactic showdown in what appears to be her mother’s former house (to be honest, that detail was lost on me) using Kyle’s Fortnite strategy of all things.

Although there is a considerable amount of exposition and heavy-handed themes in “Unhinged”, Borte (“American Dreamer” and “The Joneses”) and Ellsworth (“Red Eye” and “Disturbia”) are more interested in showing action and violence, than they are delving into the psyches of either of the two main characters. With the action of the movie happening so fast, over the course of one day (if you’re following closely along, one can assume that it ends before sunset), one doesn’t expect much in the way of character development (this isn’t Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down” or Roger Michell’s “Changing Lanes”, after all), but it does feel like Crowe and Pistorius are trying to deliver some nuance from a script that has none.

NOTE: In fact, it’s never clear where the story takes place since no states are listed on any of the license plates, nor are their any discernible identifying landmarks or references to where events occur. Only in end credits is it listed that the movie was shot in Louisiana.

Both actors do a fine job at portraying the emotional state their characters call for and then some. Crowe looms large as a man bent on ending it all in one day, something that becomes clearer as he dispenses each horrific act. He cares not that police will be looking for him and his gray pick-up and instead relentlessly pursues Rachel will grunting and puffing and popping pain pills. Still, the actor’s glares and stares are enough to make me want to pull over, kneel down and beg for forgiveness. Pistorius is spot-on at conveying Rachel’s own irresponsibility and impatience, which played their part in the day’s shocking events. Her reactions to the situation are relatable and something we could easily see transpiring in real life, right up until that climax where she becomes an action lioness.




Who knows if a genuine, heartfelt apology from Rachel would’ve been enough. Knowing what we know, if it wasn’t Rachel setting him off, someone or something else would’ve triggered The Man and another set of horrifying acts would’ve begun. That being said, one take away from the movie reminding me how as much as I think I’m having a bad day, there’s always someone out there having a worse day and how choosing kindness as a response can often unknowingly help someone else and maybe even save me from a bad encounter.

There are definitely aspects of “Unhinged” that offer hints at some form of commentary on mental health issues and threatened masculinity, but Ellsworth’s story relies more on heightened stereotypical movie character behavior and cliched dialogue, than anything with real substance or meaning. While the uncomfortable and disturbing tone of the movie makes “Unhinged” a palpable success, it is still one that is hard to recommend or consider for repeat viewings.

(“Unhinged” was supposed to be released on July 10th in the States, but theaters were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now one of two major new releasesthat will be released theatrically as theaters reopen with limited-capacity and it will be interesting to see if “The New Russell Crowe” movie will be the one to get butts back in seats. If you’d like to hear me go into more spoiler “Unhinged” details, check out this podcast)

RATING: **1/2



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