I don't usually like to play this game, but if Unhinged isn't the perfect film to embody the 2020 movie year, I don't know what. First, there's what it "is": a script, by Carl Ellsworth (who was knocking out mediocre thrillers at a nice clip in the late 2000s, and then suddenly went completely dark following the 2012 remake of Red Dawn), that is absolutely insistent that it has something to say about the high-stress world of increasing atomisation and tech-moderated experiences that we're all living in; it has a "for God's sake, turn your microphone on - no, not that way, ugh just forget it" video chat scene, and The Film Of 2020 would of course need to have one of those. But it secretly wants to be about toxic masculinity, and all it really is just screeching pointlessly and ineffectively and thinking that has real thoughts about society and culture and whatnot, despite being dumb as half-full bag of shit. All of which also says "2020" to me.

Then there's how the film came into the world: not merely one of the tiny films from nobody distributors that somehow got a kind of cheater's prominence by coming out in theaters when nothing else was, it was the first such tiny film - the movie that was the solitary new wide release on 21 August, the weekend that broke the 22-week streak of U.S. theaters being functionally shut down for lack of any new content, while introducing the hideous new normal in which a film could be the #1 movie at the North American box office while making less than $4.5 million over the course of its opening weekend. This has given it an unassailable spot in the history books, though a dismally unpleasant one, and one that will be accompanied by explanatory footnotes working overtime to make sure we understand why we don't really need to care about this.

And of course, the third thing Unhinged is, is the the kind of film where I'd open my review with two paragraphs of completely pointless bullshit rather than actually talking about the damn thing. It is quite a stupid, dreary movie, you see. It drowsily opens its eyes for the top-billed (but not leading) performance of Russell Crowe, playing a man who is... wait for it... unhinged; it comes fully awake in a few moments of absurdist violence (the absurdity not necessarily because they are bloody, mind you), where it's temporarily aware that the only thing that would ever be worthwhile is if it shoved its plot and characters to the side, and just went for pure nihilistic wackiness. Mostly it is the worst kind of idiotic slog: the sort that obviously imagines that it's smart.

In a nutshell, the film is a men's rights-themed version of Duel: a nameless man (he identifies himself as Tom Cooper at one point, but the context makes it likely that he's lying), who is in a particularly woman-hating frame of mind following his divorce from a woman who was cheating on him, is lost in thought when the light turns green at an intersection. Rachel (Caren Pistorius), currently in the middle of a divorce of her own, is right behind him, and with her entire life in a state of collapse just right now, she's got no time for lollygaggers. So she lays on the horn. Because the nameless man is... wait for it... unhinged, this immediately shoots him to a five-alarm case of road rage, and he spends the rest of the day making Rachel's life hell, in part by stealing her phone and murdering her loved ones, one at a time. You know, as one will.

There's at least a little bit of meat on these bones, most of it due to Crowe: his performance as the unhinged man, augmented by a fat suit that makes him look simultaneously pathetic and looming, is his first no-two-ways-about-it melodramatic bad guy in years, since 2014's Winter's Tale, and as in that performance, one can almost taste the joy radiating out of the actor in his embrace of all the hokiest, hammiest things he can think of to really pound home the psychopathic evil of his character. He has clearly taken the title not merely as a descriptor, but as a sacred promise to the audience, and has held nothing back in letting us see just how excessive the man's fervent sense of his own righteousness can be, alongside his bloodthirsty hatred for all other humans. I will not say that it's reason enough to see Unhinged, which is indeed a pretty crummy movie, but I will say that if your path through life means that you at some point end up having to watch it, you will at least have Crowe's presence to comfort and amuse you.

God knows nothing else will. The movie's biggest problem is that it is hellbent on making this "about" something, but it's terrible at it. First, it can't make up its mind what to do. There's at least one critical split in the screenplay's soul, between wanting to talk about how the relentless pace of the modern world can push an already unbalanced mind past the breaking point, and wanting to talk about an entitled, egocentric male worldview that manifests as punishing Rachel for being a woman (and a woman undergoing a divorce, at that), and these two movies fundamentally do not have the same protagonist (in the end, Unhinged makes Rachel the protagonist, while using dialogue to constantly push the "people can snap from too much stress" angle that assumes the man is the protagonist). It's also possible to subdivide things further, since road rage is kind of entirely different than "cell phones can be really stressful", and right from the film's second scene - an opening credits montage of geometric slices of urban living with urgent news reports about people's mental deterioration playing underneath - it's trying like hell to pretend that those are actually the same.

And that's compounded by the profoundly ill-advised opening scene, which finds the man solemnly removing his wedding ring before beating his ex-wife and her lover to death with a hammer, and then setting her house on fire. It would be difficult to overstate how bad for the film it was to start this way. First, it means that we're at 100% before the actual narrative has even started, so there is simply no place to go, and so the entire movie is nothing but repetitions and variations of Crowe spitting fiery, violent invective at top speed, using a mildly unacceptable Southern U.S. accent. This very quickly becomes tedious. Second, it murders the theme: once you've established "this is a man who kills people with a hammer", there's simply no way to then immediately try to retrench to "the speed of modern living makes some people go a little crazy, hence road rage". Maybe it does, but the dude kills people with a hammer, it's not road rage and cell phones pushing him down the road to madness.

The obvious fix here would just be to embrace the lurid trashiness of the plot and the character, and let it be a pure psycho killer exploitation movie; and surprise of surprises, Unhinged is good when and only when it does that, in a few different scenes that I shan't spoil, other than to say that the film is able to play the "and then suddenly, he was hit by a car moving at top speed" card multiple times, and always well. As long as it doesn't even pretend to have thoughts in its ugly little head, it's reasonably okay at being disreputable fun, and director Derrick Borte does a good job of ratcheting up suspense in these moments (he also manages to keep the running time nice and short - under 90 minutes - in the correct fashion for a grubby little shocker).

Unfortunately, it tries to think rather too often. It also tries to make Rachel an adequate protagonist, which would probably fail no matter what, but certainly there's no making it work with Pistorius's utterly vapid performance undergirding it. Crowe offers such a robust, melodramatic form of villainy that his co-star would need to be prepared to go really big to counterbalance it, and Pistorius does the opposite, trying to scrape something up by treating this as a quiet human story about a woman who just wants to be able to live quietly and love her son. The script doesn't support that, the propulsive filmmaking doesn't support that, and frankly, Pistorius's thin acting style doesn't support it. Unhinged might have worked as a roaring movie about its mad villain, but Crowe only ever enters as an obstacle in Rachel's story, and Rachel's story is way too dull and under-conceived for that to be any kind of workable strategy.