During any other year, the late-summer B-grade berth of Unhinged would be no big deal — blowing into auditoriums abandoned by July’s biggest blockbusters after several weeks, banking say a $12 million opening, and bouncing from most multiplexes by mid-September. 

But on a calendar gone cattywampus by COVID 19 and where there have been no wide theatrical releases since March, this modestly budgeted thriller  — starring Russell Crowe as a ruthless homicidal juggernaut stalking a single mom across New Orleans from the vehicular Valhalla of his giant truck — represents the very viability of major-motion-picture moviegoing during a public health crisis. (Midwest Film Journal does not recommend attending indoor theaters at this time. Check local listings for drive-in showtimes or, for applicable titles, on-demand options.)

In a certain sense, Unhinged seems like the perfect pressure release after months of minimal options for new movies — a high-calorie, high-camp cheeseburger of carnage and catharsis to wolf down and consider any consequence later, if at all. Indeed, this sandwich tastes pretty good at times. But the counter on which it’s served has some chips in the Formica that catch your finger, a lot of worn-down spots and a couple of small, indeterminate stains. After a long absence, this joint is not exactly … welcoming

The preamble of Unhinged is a bludgeon-and-torch affair that leaves us to intuit just why The Man (as Crowe is credited, not by an almost-certain alias used later) believes retribution is now his only contribution. It establishes the straightforwardly brutal bonafides of a script by Carl Ellsworth (leaving behind the playfulness of his previous programmers Red Eye or Disturbia) but also boxes Crowe in with nowhere to go later beyond blowhard bellowing of nigh-Pentecostal volume and vitriol. (For the measured version of this tale, 2002’s Changing Lanes offers a memorable morality play of best intentions knocked about by worst impulses.)

Although it’s disappointing to see Crowe’s considerable nuance swallowed up, it’s also very  much in service of his (and the movie’s) implicit understanding that some people’s evil is quite simply beyond empathetic identification. The kind that morphs into an entropic force that serves only to engulf, engulf and engulf some more. It’s a fruitless search for meaning and purpose to quell a rage at best misdirected toward those who aren’t devising their pain (perceived or actual) or at worst unleashed upon absolutely anyone who feels “other.” Is this one note Crowe strums until the string breaks and he smashes the instrument into splinters? Sure. But it’s generally the appropriate one for this bull of a man who finds matadors with taunting capes around every corner and is always eager to barrel forward and gore at will. The shallow and superficial among us can lob all the lazy, lifeless jokes they want about Crowe’s physical girth here. He’s bigger than he’s ever been, but it lends to ominous, looming body language that fits the character. There’s a moment where The Man works a victim’s limp frame like a puppet and you believe this guy could actually do it.

If Unhinged stayed in lanes paved by the likes of Roger Corman and Larry Cohen, its entirety would be much easier to enjoy as a hoot-and-holler horror show. But an opening-credits sequence cut and scored to feel like those of Se7en drizzles all manner of dispiriting detail.

“Incivility is a major issue in America!” barks a disembodied news anchor over real-world camera footage of violence, distracted driving, vainglorious selfie-snapping, protests and street beatdowns. That’s before the credits bemoan diminished police presence and dwindling applications. Look, law enforcement’s inability to stop the slaughter is a staple of these things. But Unhinged asks you to believe NOLA has next to no cops and that the ones who are on the street are ineffective doofuses that waltz  in alone to subdue a suspect on whom there’s a citywide APB for several murders. We also know The Man is emboldened by whatever prescriptions he is, or is not, popping — a light, but noted, demonizing of the opioid crisis and oversimplification of mental health challenges.

You’re likely to find a less unsettling assemblage of topics during your daily doomscroll, and infusing even a sliver of social commentary into a salacious thriller invites deeper scrutiny than a clean slice of self-contained exploitation. Just as it’s not so naive to excuse every evildoer, Unhinged also does not indulge an idea of very good people on both sides. While it’s not exactly a dog whistle for unnecessarily alarmist fear-mongering, it’s definitely a chirp — one intended to nag a bit at the back of your fraught mind that reform (especially on the police point) could lead to a regression into some sort of scorched hellscape where, say, if you’re a harried hairstylist beset by a tormentor, your sharp scissors are all you’ll have.

Caren Pistorius plays Rachel, the woman who eventually becomes the object of The Man’s aggressions. She’s in the middle of a contentious divorce in which her ex is going after the house. Her mother has moved into an eldercare facility from a house they can’t sell. Her son, Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), has a boundless, but unreciprocated, enthusiasm for his dad. Clients can her for being a couple minutes late. The bills are piling up. 

Rachel has already handled enough shit in one morning to last a week when she hits a traffic light at which The Man has zoned out even as the light turns green. Rachel lays on the horn and, when he refuses to accelerate, zooms around him. Echoing the forcefulness and relatability that Linda Cardellini brings to films that don’t just shunt her into useless roles, Pistorius effectively conveys someone trying to take the high road even as the tyrannical and intemperate so insolently invade her space. For Rachel, that goes out her window when The Man rolls down his at the next stoplight — offering an apology but insisting upon one in return for her forgoing the “courtesy tap.” When The Man doesn’t get one — and why should he? — so begins his odyssey to burn down Rachel’s life and show her what a bad day really means.

Director Derrick Borte certainly infuses the film’s remainder with a slick, relentless energy that mixes freeway mayhem with more insidious and intimate violence. For the former, it’s a lollapalooza of T-boned sedans, flipped SUVs and crushed cars. Always a welcome presence, Jimmi Simpson of Westworld embodies the latter in a segment that traps him across from Crowe during a moment of tremendously mounted tension in a diner. Unhinged could stand to gain from a bit more bleak levity, such as when The Man — in possession of Rachel’s phone — relays that her therapy appointment has been rescheduled: “She better bring her A-game … because you’re gonna fuckin’ need it.” In lieu of that, Unhinged is papered over by dubious developments concerning data-plan technology, phone-tracking apps and suburban neighborhoods where, conveniently, no one ever seems to be around.

All this considerable frenzy builds to a climactic button that’s musically lame (hello, slowed-down cover of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”) and, in its own tut-tutting way, ideologically questionable. The film’s survivors feel cowed more into a place of complacency than compassion — not “Be kind for you know not what someone’s going through” but “Be quiet, always, for you know not if someone’s going to be a homicidal psychopath.” It’s one thing to advise caution before we open the throttle on somebody, another thing entirely to suggest mousy silence in the wake of choices that command and demand consequences — whether the willful running of a stoplight or a blind eye turned toward those with legitimate struggles. 

Ultimately, Unhinged feels like a further entrenchment into the mania beyond which so many of us, really, are trying to move in some meaningful measure. And yet it’s not a bad movie as much as one that perhaps unwisely chose to bite off more than it could chew and then had even more larded on its representational plate thanks to circumstances beyond its control. On one hand, the comeuppance of creeps through “violence and retribution” (to use The Man’s Old Testament oratory) has always been where rubber meets the road for such stories. In that tradition, Unhinged is not without its lurid laurels. Rather than roust more realistic anxieties, it would have done better to just rest on them. Lord knows we could all use that kind of break.