In the 2002 movie Changing Lanes, two strangers (Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson) became embroiled in a petty and violent tit-for-tat war after a minor collision on the freeway. Things got pretty nasty, but that film is a Disney princess movie next to Unhinged, a funny, shlocky and gratuitously nasty thriller that offers an object lesson on the value of driver courtesy.
At the centre of it all is Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a harried woman who's going through an ill-tempered divorce. She has a young son, a freelance beauty business that's hit the skids, and a reputation for tardiness that's well-deserved. Rachel is racing through the traffic to get her son to school on time when she gets stuck behind a large grey four-wheel drive at traffic lights. When the lights turn green, the SUV doesn't move and Rachel honks her horn before swerving around it and moving on. Uh oh.
A little later, the same SUV pulls up beside them and a heavy-set man with sunglasses (Russell Crowe) rolls down his window and introduces himself as Tom. After delivering a polite lecture on road etiquette, Tom offers a tight-lipped apology for having delayed her. "Do you accept my apology?" he then asks. "Whatever," Rachel says, adding that she's having a bad day. "I don't think you really know what a bad day is like," Tom says darkly, "but you're gonna find out."
Idle threats, Rachel thinks to herself as she speeds off into the weaving traffic. "Everything's gonna be ok," she tells her worried-looking son. Oh no it isn't, and we, the audience, have the advantage of having watched Tom kill his ex-wife and her partner with a hammer and burn their house down in a grisly prelude. This is not a man who reacts well to perceived slights and believe me, he now feels slighted. After successfully depositing her kid at school, Rachel is on her way to meet her friend and divorce lawyer Andy (Jimmi Simpson) when she realises she's low on petrol and stops at a service station. While she's inside paying, she looks out the window and sees Tom's grey SUV parked right behind her. And when Tom deliberately runs over an attendant who tries to help her, Rachel finally understands she's in big trouble.
During a later conversation in a diner, Crowe is given the time and space to perform, and whispers his way most effectively through a demented litany of threats and grievances made all the more chilling by his icy politeness. In this instant, Russ acts: he will not be required to do so again.
Unhinged is silly, no question, also nasty, often needlessly so. But it does have a sense of humour, a believable victim/avenger in Pistorius's Rachel, and an eye-rolling Grand Guignol villain in Crowe. This role might be beneath him, but Russ approaches it with commendable conviction, even managing to keep a straight face during a ludicrous climax which includes a repeated catchphrase - "here's your courtesy tip!" - that would not be out of place in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Indeed, there's a strong whiff of the 1980s off this entire production, which employs the winning combo of excessive violence and glib asides that was such a feature of low-grade cinema during that drab and endless decade.
One thinks in particular of The Hitcher, in which the late Rutger Hauer played a roadside thumber who refuses to go away. Unhinged has that same dim-witted intensity, and tendency to helpfully telegraph each and every plot twist. Thanks in the main to Crowe's charisma and commitment, it just about gets away with it.
Rating: three stars