After a confrontation with an unstable man at an intersection, a woman becomes the target of his rage.
We used to say hell is other people but now hell happens in full view of other people. In Unhinged, drawn-out, cold-blooded murder is committed in front of several witnesses, all of whom prefer to record rather than intervene.
There’s a montage at the start of the film filled with news reports and snippets about incivility, rudeness, anger, untreated mental health issues, a general lack of self-control – basically a society on its last legs. Even this highlights how easily it is to grow fearful and angry yourself, watching these quick-fire reports one after the other.
Harnessing the worst of the old and the new in how we live, this is a 90-minute road rage shocker that I enjoyed way more than I expected. And I don’t even like driving.
Actually road rage, like many media-friendly terms, massively undersells how awful the antagonist, Tom Cooper, is. He’s a murderer in a truck, hiding his loathing for women under fragile excuses, claiming the narratives of other selfish men to back up his violence.
Newly-single mum Rachel (Caren Pistorius) first encounters Cooper (Russell Crowe) when she’s late doing the school run, and she and her young son Kyle decide to take the backroads of New Orleans to make up time.
Cooper is ahead of her in his truck – he’s just murdered his ex-wife, he’s on pills, his head hurts from a workplace injury. When he fails to see a green light Rachel beeps him aggressively and overtakes him. He catches her up and berates her for rudeness; she drops Kyle at school but Cooper is soon on her tail, appearing again, and again, and again – a cat and mouse game where someone has to end up dead, and the only way for the mouse to win is to start playing someone else’s game.
This is a grubby, violent, back-to-basics B movie, and thoroughly enjoyable at that. A Ronseal film that does exactly what it says on the tin, no less and certainly no more, it’s one of those films I felt both gripped and repulsed by. At the end I wanted a shower. And atop all of this sits an always-compelling Crowe, exuberantly brutal and brutish as Cooper, a man empowered by his truck, safe from the rest of the world. That truck is, to quote a modern hashtag, his happy place. Inside it he’s more tactical as he taunts and tracks her. When he does leave its safety, he lumbers around, less calculated, more insecure, more random.
Rachel isn’t meek but she’s also not a fight-back sort of person; though she learns she needs to become that to anchor her space in the world. Not much of a message but hey this is 2020.
Not in control of her life, getting angry (in a much smaller way) at other drivers, Rachel would be – were it not for her lazy ex-husband Richard and the unhinged Cooper – her own worst enemy. (Pistorius is impressive as a woman who is always reacting, always on the back foot.) Granted, her behaviour is irritating not criminal, but it leads to her losing her best client. She’s averagely flawed with flashes of bitterness – tardiness is one thing, but her response when Cooper tells her to choose the next victim is bleakly funny.
At 90 minutes this is a taut, painful ride. There are moments of calm for Rachel to catch her breath and wonder if she’s given him the slip, though it turns out he’s just off somewhere killing more people she knows.
Someone is run over. Another is stabbed. One has lighter fluid poured around him while taped to a chair. One is squashed by a truck (a nod to Duel?) If you like watching people killed for being nice, this is the film for you!
Unhinged is about traditional abusive tactics (tracking her devices, explosions of rage at tiny slights, threatening suicide by cop) and what can happen when these events play out in full view of a world where we are now only superficially connected. We can constantly repost the #BeKind hashtags of thousands of online “friends”, but not help out a man being murdered in a diner in front of us. It’s a bleak outlook.
Cooper’s killing spree is a collision of randomness and planning: he sees anyone even tangentially connected to Rachel as fair game and his methods of murder don’t really follow a pattern; but he murders his ex-wife and her partner in the first few minutes and has everything he needs to kill.
Although Russell Crowe’s antagonist is listed in the credits as simply The Man, he is upfront about his name during the film: Tom Cooper. I’m assuming it’s his real name and there’s no reason for it not to be. It doesn’t matter who knows it because he’s not trying to hide his day of mayhem and mammoth destruction. He thinks he’s right – why would he hide?
Unhinged sounds like the direct descendant of Duel, where Dennis Weaver’s salesman is tormented by the unseen, murderous driver of a tanker. The differences really highlight how life has changed and how much has stayed the same. The isolation in your car (something we often actively seek out) remains the same, though Duel‘s director Steven Spielberg talked about the fear of the unknown; we never see the tanker driver properly. Now we see everything – all the time! – on social media and 24 hour news, a lot of it overly angry or fakely soothing.
Without meaning to – Cooper is after a victim not an opponent – he forces Rachel to clean up her act to take him on, forcing her to be logical and thoughtful, focusing on her own strengths and knowledge of local roads and homes. It’s a weird, if honest, message: that a woman has to change to be allowed to be safe out in the big wide world. The last scene in the film seems to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, though it also makes a lot of sense.
Unhinged is out in selected US cinemas now. It was released in UK cinemas on 31 July and is still on general release
Read my utterly spoilery article Unhinged: what’s it driving at?
Watch the Unhinged trailer now: