By Leah Greenblatt
August 18, 2020 at 06:30 PM EDT
Everett Collection

Robert De Niro knows exactly how to do it, and Joaquin Phoenix too; Clint Eastwood pretty much invented it. Russell Crowe's own career owes no small part to the mad men he's portrayed on screen. But rarely has white male rage been poured into an instrument as aggressively blunt as Unhinged (in theaters Aug. 21) — a revenge thriller so furiously rudimental that a more fitting title might have contained no words at all, just a guttural Braveheart howl.

Crowe's unnamed protagonist doesn't even deign to speak in the opening scene. Hunched in the driver's seat outside a neat suburban home, he gazes through the windshield, pops a pill, thoughtfully twists off his wedding ring — then steps out soundlessly and reigns destruction.

The flurry of news clips and sound bites playing over the credits that follow work overtime to tell us that This Is a Thing: the free-floating anger and public incidents; a society of under-policed, overwrought citizens pushed to their breaking points and brawling in the streets.

Clips, apparently, that everyone but newly separated single mom Rachel (South African actress Caren Pistorius) has seen when she scrambles to get her young son (Gabriel Bateman) to school and start her day as a hairdresser. So when some jerk in a pickup truck fails to take his foot off the brake at a green light, she honks, and then honks again.

Oh, Rachel. "Know what a courtesy tap is, young man?" Crowe's nameless driver drawls at the boy, leaning out his window. "It's light, it's friendly. Just like you're tryin' to get somebody's attention." By then, of course, light and friendly have long left the building. Heavy and hateful is the new game, and there will be more than a few brutally effective moments in the mayhem that follows; one diner scene, in particular, plays out in a slow, sticky crescendo of dread.

But the screenplay, by Carl Ellsworth (2012's Red Dawn), feels like a sketch done in Sharpie, and director Derrick Borte (American Dreamer) can't seem to meet a metaphor he won't belabor or a point he doesn't hammer home twice — so that what could have been a pleasingly lean and mean kind of B-movie becomes somehow both over-egged and underbaked: a slurry of awkward exposition, silly coincidence, and a story line so scant that even at 90 minutes it feels drastically padded.

It doesn't help that Pistorius' Rachel spends the first 75 of it like a woman who's never seen a horror movie — if there were noises in the basement, she'd run right down to investigate with a plastic spork in her hand — and the final 15 like a ninja assassin who invented them. And that it subjects her to every last terror cliché, from the just-when-you-thought-you-outran-him jump scare to the phone battery that waits until it's most crucially needed to die.

The movie's biggest injustice though, besides its hammy missteps into social commentary, may be what it does to Crowe. Fleshy and bearded, he's like a wounded grizzly, letting all the shades of pain and fury play across his face with a nuance that the script itself has little time for. By the last outrageous set piece, it nearly feels like a miracle that he hasn't turned directly to the camera to roar, "Are you not entertained?" This gladiator deserves better, and so does his audience. C-

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