I am wide-awake.
There’s a big difference between getting cut-off white driving and finding yourself stuck behind a distracted driver at a green light. The former could have killed you. The latter is at most a frustrating inconvenience. There should therefore be a big difference in how you respond to both scenarios too. While a courtesy tap is all you need to wake someone up to the fact it’s time to go, the jerk in violation of traffic laws demands something more robust if for no other reason than to let him/her know they were in the wrong and it won’t be tolerated. I don’t think there’s much nuance in this distinction. It’s pretty cut and dry. So why are director Derrick Borte and writer Carl Ellsworth completely blind to it?
The answer is superficially simple: their film Unhinged is a schlocky B-movie that revels in its reductive plot progressions in order to allow for the maximum amount of violence. And to a certain point that’s fine. For about half of its run-time I was firmly okay with that being their motive because the thrills—no matter how ham-fisted or how disposable they treated collateral damage—were effectively drawn towards that goal. I told myself, “As long as they don’t create a false equivalency between road rage and one’s duty to call out a flagrant transgression with mortal consequences, I can enjoy the ride.” Why? Because it means Borte and Ellsworth were only flirting with the victim-blaming line. Enter the brief epilogue that unforgivingly proves the opposite.
Pretense flies out the window the moment your quest to end things with a chuckle leads to a moralizing lesson that places the fault at the feet of your protagonist. This is probably a spoiler, but the film ends with Rachel (Caren Pistorius) slamming on the brakes as a car runs a red light as she’s about to rightfully cross the intersection. She’s about to rightfully lay on the horn when her hand stops mid-air with a deep breath and the words “Good choice” heard from the backseat. No. It wasn’t a “good choice.” We most definitely do not need to become sheep that refuse to hold aggressors accountable because of the risk of retribution. Such fear conversely fuels a predator’s sense of invulnerability. It makes them comfortable.
Rachel unnecessarily blaring her horn at the man (Russell Crowe) who subsequently terrorizes her because she refuses to apologize isn’t the reason for his unchecked carnage. The decision to ultimately make it so she’s too afraid to ever honk her horn for legitimate reasons in the aftermath, however, posits that it was. So now you have to look back and wonder about every other choice made only to discover that a lot of what you thought was lazy writing might actually have been a purposeful need to cover tracks. The moment you put the onus on Rachel is the moment you soften her assailant’s (he uses the name Tom Cooper) righteousness. The moment you despicably inject the room for gray area is the moment you yourself become complicit.
So why does Borte and Ellsworth start their film with the brutality of Tom bashing the head of his ex-wife in with a hammer before setting her house on fire if they’re just going to negate its purpose of ensuring he’s the unquestionable and unapologetic bad guy by letting him speak and letting his terror work? Why create the mirror of his rage stemming from an ugly divorce with Rachel being involved in her own if not to put Tom face-to-face with her lawyer (Jimmi Simpson‘s Andy) so he can further his misogynistic rhetoric and explain how he’s been wronged? It’s as though they wanted to make Rachel a “bitch” and knew it’d look bad if they didn’t make Tom a monster. But don’t forget that society made him one.
Sorry. That might be an even worse look since you’re now telling us that Rachel must learn how to be “less of a bitch” while Tom is allowed to become a martyr. That’s what happens when you paint him as a broken man who had to “pump himself up” before his first homicide. That’s what happens when you allow him to treat her as a villain within a scenario of his making. We don’t need Tom to be a “real” person. We don’t need him to justify what he’s doing regardless of whether you also explain that justification is warped. We don’t need those things because anyone who does what he does to Rachel has no excuse. Any rationale he might have possessed disappears once his abuse begins.
You could make this same movie with Crowe’s character never saying a word and it would still provide the suspense inherent to the dynamic at play. You don’t need him to be anything more than the boogeyman because the other route is a slippery slope towards a heap of trouble. It’s only compounded when you try and also introduce flimsy commentary during the opening credits about how we’re all distracted and unsafe because of so much information and technology. What does that have to do with anything that happens besides providing said technology as a means for Tom to terrorize Rachel and to kill a random woman on the road for applying make-up on the freeway? It’s nothing more than hollow window-dressing because Tom is his own reason.
Tom is a psychopath. He’s a remorseless scourge of pent-up toxic masculinity and entitlement unleashing a vendetta upon unsuspecting citizens about what a “bad day” truly is despite never telling us what his “bad day” was. Did his wife cheat on him? Is that what happened? Is that what got him on this rampage after a woman dared to be short with him on the road? Did she remind him of his wife? And then you write her an ending wherein she needs to check her rage? Are you kidding? From B-movie schlock that skirts with a lot of bad ideas to simply being one bad idea itself, Unhinged inevitably reveals its intent during that final scene: if women were nicer, men wouldn’t have to be so mean.
 RUSSELL CROWE STARS AS “THE MAN” IN THE PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER UNHINGED. PHOTO CREDIT – SKIP BOLDEN
 CAREN PISTORIOUS CO-STARS AS RACHEL IN THE IN THE PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER UNHINGED. PHOTO CREDIT – SKIP BOLDEN