Russell Crowe finds his beefiest, growliest, jowliest form in this gonzo road-rage thriller, with some nasty and extraneous stabs of violence. The title is one of many unsubtle things about it.
Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is a stressed single mother driving her teen son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school; she finds herself stuck at an intersection behind a guy in a pickup who doesn’t move when the lights turn green. She gives a loud, protracted, angry honk, overtakes his infuriatingly stationary vehicle, but then he pulls up beside her at the next stop – and it’s Crowe, looking as he probably looked when the BBC producer cut his poem reading from the Bafta broadcast in 2002.
He patronisingly tells Rachel that instead of honking like that, she should have given the “courtesy tap” – a quick and polite beep. He asks her to apologise. She declines to do so. Things deteriorate. So far, so tense. But the problem is that the film won’t let you simply savour the pure motiveless horror of road rage, or notice the fact that in our acrimonious world of spite and misogyny on and offline, rage is everywhere.
Famously, the sinister killer in Steven Spielberg’s Duel was a faceless demon, whose feelings we could only guess at and – in fairness – it could be that screenwriter Carl Ellsworth did not wish just to copy such a famous example. But the problem is that the film insists on giving a bit of backstory to Crowe’s road-rager, showing him in an over-the-top incident at the very beginning that undercuts the slow build of his first encounter with Rachel. This slice of backstory is too much for him to be an abstract force of evil, yet too little for him to be a credible human being.
Unhinged pinballs its away around, with cars bashing and pranging into other cars and these stunts do have a metal-crunching, bone-fracturing effectiveness. But the off-road violence is too much. It undermines the jeopardy and suspense of his pursuit of Rachel, and crowds out any possibility of any cat-and-mouse moments when Rachel might be able to get the upper hand. Unhinged is a by-the-numbers violent movie, a driverless car heading up a dead end.
• Unhinged is in cinemas from 31 July.