‘Unhinged’ at the Movies

The very act of sitting in a theater puts you in the mindset of Russell Crowe’s character


Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

I saw the Unhinged movie. A nasty little grindhouse thriller that clocks in at barely an hour and a half, Unhinged is pretty stupid, but also an effectively unsettling satire about the unbridled anger that underlies our broken society. Russell Crowe plays a fat spouse murderer with PTSD. A nice youngish woman with her own problems honks at him in traffic one morning when he still has blood on his shirt from murdering someone. He goes on a crazy rampage to “teach her a lesson” like people do in movies. He stabs and punches people. Many cars crash and explode. A bunch of bald white cops drive around pointlessly. It comes to a nasty head with people clawing and snarling at one another like forest animals. It is, by default, the number-one movie in America.

UNHINGED ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Derrick Borte
Written by: Carl Ellsworth
Starring: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Jimmi Simpson
Running time: 90 min

Now to address the virus in the room. I saw Unhinged at the Lake Creek Seven, a theater near my house. The theater has been open since Memorial Day or so. Though I went to see a movie in May, I drove 45 miles to do it because the neighborhood theater wasn’t open yet. Then it did open. Throughout the summer, as cases and hospitalizations rose in Travis County, I considered stopping by the theater for a movie. They were showing the John Lewis documentary, which I wanted to see. But I didn’t go.

Then they opened Unhinged. Though various indie horror flicks and the Jon Stewart political satire opened at theaters this summer, Unhinged is the first movie to appear exclusively in theaters in the U.S. during the pandemic. My chief movie critic said he wanted to see it, but had no access to a screener and no theaters open near him. In addition, he said, “I ain’t risking my life for bloated Russell Crowe.”

Fair enough. Who would? Well, millions of people worldwide, I guess. The movie made five million dollars last weekend. That’s a lot of money for a movie in 2020. It’s news. So into the breach I trudged, a reporter of great character and courage. There was one employee, selling tickets and manning the concessions. Unlike the last time I went to the movies, she didn’t take my temperature or ask me any COVID intake questions, like they do at the box office. Protocols were slender at this lone cinematic outpost.

As I’m typing this, the credits rolled less than an hour ago, and I’m still alive. Like the virus watchers say, “wait two weeks.” The theater had blocked off half the seats with caution tape, though that was hardly necessary for my showing. There were two other people in the theater at 1:30 PM on a Tuesday, a lady two rows behind me who sat there, masked and silent, and a guy who munched on popcorn, killing two grammas with every bite, and didn’t put his mask back on when he was done. He wasn’t wearing a Grim Reaper costume, but he very well could have been my agent of death. Regardless, there I sat, in the movies, like life was normal.

Now back to the review. Unhinged’s characters have one and a half dimensions each at the most. It features absurd coincidences and plot twists. And the violence goes reaches beyond gratuitous into the vaguely porny. The movie is essentially a rehash of Steven Spielberg’s debut, Duel, but without the style, charm, or fun. Unhinged also resembles short high-concept thriller films like Phone Booth. It even has a little whiff of Die Hard. And, though Crowe’s character is a totally unsympathetic monster, he’s kind of a working-class white man vengeance figure, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, or Michael Douglas in Falling Down. He’s a man America forgot, but he still has his truck, and his fists, and whatever he can weaponize at the moment.

Caren Pistorius, as Crowe’s victim, is much more sympathetic, but she’s equally put-upon, going through a divorce, out of work, struggling to raise a middle schooler in a house she can’t afford. It doesn’t take much for the violence to bubble up in her, either.

Still, like the movies of S. Craig Zahler, Unhinged appeals to a certain put-upon American mindset. It’s not sophisticated or particularly good, but it speaks to people who have played by all the rules and still find themselves getting kicked in the face by reality. Crowe’s snarling, sweaty pig-man is stunningly accurate, even if his actions aren’t remotely realistic. There’s a kind of thrill in watching his fate play out in a short-form, in an actual movie theater, in the middle of the worst year most of us have ever known.

The movie ended. My heart was racing from the action and from the genuine fear at having put myself in semi-danger at merely leaving the house. Unhinged takes place in a city full of people going about their days like there wasn’t a pandemic. But the inchoate rage it depicts hardly feels irrelevant. When I got to my car, my phone showed me images of a brutal police shooting and violent protests in Wisconsin. My social media filled with paranoid fantasies from the right and the left. The country was on fire again. Anyone could snap at any moment. No one would blame me, or any of us, for feeling a little unhinged.

Neal Pollack is UNHINGED (photo by Neal Pollack).

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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