“Unhinged” is a three-fer: a thriller bordering on slasher movie (watch out for those candy-cane-striped scissors!) that’s about road rage. Russell Crowe stars as the enraged party. Caren Pistorius is the young mother he terrorizes because she honks at him when he doesn’t move after a light turns green. “I don’t really think you know what a bad day is,” he tells her. “But you’re going to find out.” Some prophecies are more self-fulfilling than others.
How was she to know that earlier that morning he’d murdered his ex-wife and her husband and burned down their house? Also, Crowe drives a 4x4 pickup, a real bruiser. She drives an early-model Volvo wagon. Automotively, you can see how things might start heading south, though maybe not as far south as they end up. By then, Crowe has switched to a minivan.
When people are hit by cars, as several are, the collisions are shot and edited so as to maximize the viewer flinch factor. Understood in strictly technical terms, these scenes are expertly done. Of course understanding gloating violence in strictly technical terms is an activity most commonly associated with defense lawyers at The Hague. “Unhinged” also includes violence against women, violence against a child, and some violence against adult males that seems kind of ho-hum by comparison (except when lighter fluid’s involved).
“Unhinged” is notable for two reasons. Both are confounding.
It’s one of two new releases this week that will play in theaters, showing at Boston Common, Showplace ICON, South Bay, and some suburban venues. The other movie is the teen drama “Words on Bathroom Walls.” “Unhinged” has been getting more attention, presumably because of Crowe.
Both the West Newton Cinema and Lexington Venue reopened last month. But those theaters have been screening either classic films or new ones primarily available for streaming. There’s no streaming for “Unhinged.” It’s new and available in theaters only — just like the old days. That means this tightly wound but increasingly repellent picture has earned itself a place, however minuscule, in movie social history. Some people are desperate to see a movie in a theater. It’s hard to imagine anyone desperate to an “Unhinged” degree.
The second reason is more confounding. Call it the wages of stardom.
Crowe became a star almost a quarter century ago, in “L.A. Confidential” (1997). He was a bit burly as well as brawny, just the ticket for “Gladiator” (2000), winning an Oscar. Yet he also displayed an appreciable, held-in-check intelligence, which meant he could play the Nobel Prize-winning economist John Nash, in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001). There was something else. Good Australian mate that he was, Crowe clearly had an ambivalence about stardom. That combination of qualities has made for an interestingly checkered career since, playing a heavyweight boxing champion, several cops, Robin Hood (!), Superman’s father (!!), Inspector Javert, and Roger Ailes (!!!).
Say this for Crowe, he’s not mailing in his performance here. He really lays into it. This speaks well for his actorly integrity, if not for his taste in material. At 56, his days as a romantic lead are behind him. But this far behind? His “Unhinged” character is a pill-popping mouth breather with a sweaty beard and big, big gut. He combines the cruelty of a bear-baiter with the appearance of an actual bear. It’s kind of a neat trick, actually: the unbearable bearishness of Russell Crowe. If Disney goes the “Jungle Book” route again, consider him a lock for Baloo.
Directed by Derrick Borte. Written by Carl Ellsworth. Starring Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 90 minutes. R (gruesome, unrelenting violence, language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.