Unhinged was one of the last films to make it to cinemas before lockdown, and it focuses on an experience that must feel especially uncanny for Americans in lockdown – peak hour traffic, and the road rage that it so often produces. In essence, Unhinged is a study of the psychology of road rage – where it comes from, how it can escalate, and how to thwart it – ultimately diagnosing it as a crisis in a white middle-class masculinity that has less and less places to express its angst. In director Derrick Borte’s hands, road rage also plays one of the last venues where sexual aggression towards women is still semi-sanctioned, or at least easier to pass under the radar, since so much of it happens in such a fleeting and momentary way.
This plays out via two distinct narrative threads that converge on a road rage encounter that sets the film in motion. On the one hand, we have Tom Cooper, played by Russell Crowe, who we meet in the opening scene, where he lurks outside what appears to be his old house, before barging inside, killing his ex-wife and her partner, and setting the entire structure alight. Part of the power of Unhinged is that it never makes any real attempt to deepen Cooper, and certainly doesn’t transition him from a reasonable man to a vigilante, as might have occurred in an older kind of road rage film, such as Falling Down. Instead, Cooper is a total psycho from the outset, and while that might remove some of the campy fun of the vigilante genre, it also gives Unhinged a peculiar intensity that makes it more distinctive too.
On the other hand, we have Rachel Hunter, played by Caren Pistorius, and her son Kyle, played by Gabriel Bateman. We meet Rachel in the midst of divorce proceedings, which have been complicated by her ex-husband’s demand for her house, where she lives with several generations of her family. Rachel is barely making ends meet, and has just missed a job opportunity when the film begins, extending precarious domestic space into precarious professional space, since Cooper’s psychosis is also eventually attributed to a workplace injury that was never properly resolved. Between the opening spectacle of Cooper torching his old house, and the drama of Rachel trying to keep her house, a volatile space emerges between home and work, the two poles of white middle-class respectability, so it’s not surprising when Rachel’s son informs her that the great majority of road rage occurs on morning commutes.
No surprise, either, that this is where Rachel first encounters Cooper, the morning after he has killed his ex-wife and torched their home. When Cooper fails to heed a green light, Rachel gives him a long beep from behind, and her supposed discourtesy in not prefacing it with a “warning beep” sends Cooper into a vigilantistic rage. First he stalks her in his car, then he gets a hold of her phone, using it to come after her divorce lawyer, her son and her family home, like a hallucinatory projection of all her worst fears about her upcoming custody battle. Crowe makes no concession to realism here, outplaying even his caricature of Roger Ailes to muster up a brilliant performance that is all breathy, sweaty, looming, lumbering paunch – like a grindhouse Orson Welles – as Borte throws every surface of his body into abject relief.
Part of the genius of Crowe’s performance is that he never allows for any hand-wringing over “motivation,”as occurs in so many white vigilante films. Instead, Unhinged seems prescient that anxieties about motivation are really just window-dressing for the real visceral kernel of these films – seeing a defender of home and hearth mutating into a full psycho, and adopting the license of a full psycho, which is what Crowe does here without any regard for the moment of transition, or conversion, or explosion, that normally signals the shift from respectability politics to political incorrectness in the vast majority of white vigilante movies.
In other words, Crowe opts for raw fury over traditional characterisation, which perhaps explains why the car crashes themselves are so violent. One of the odd aspects of the film is the near absence of gun violence, since in any American city this would presumably escalate to firearms pretty quickly – or at least Crowe plays exactly the kind of character you would expect to carry firearms, and to invoke them in the types of road encounters that percolate through the film. Yet this absence ultimately works to the film’s advantage, since it allows Crowe to evoke an emasculation that can no longer be satiated by gun ownership alone. While Cooper is always a lone wolf, his militarised rhetoric could easily be absorbed into a white nationalist army, just as his black SUV would feel most at home in a phallic convoy shot.
Cooper’s omniscience also makes him feel like part of a broader macho moment that Lauren and Kyle can never fully escape. Whereas films set in Los Angeles often posit the freeways as a source of alienation, Disclosure presents them as a source of unbearable embodiment – one of the few places where people can’t escape from, or deny, the proximity of other bodies, or other types of bodies. In other words, Cooper turns the highways into sites of unbearable connectivity, which perhaps explains why the film is so obsessed with the analogues between freeway travel and phone communication. There are constant references to phones while driving, while all of the opening shots of car crashes are shot from phones, or caused by phones. Lauren uses a phone app to determine her daily commute, and so only crosses paths with Cooper in the first place because of a directive provided to her by her phone. Conversely, Cooper’s plan really gets going once he steals Lauren’s phone at a service station – a plan that Kyle can only finally thwart by flipping the track-my-phone app using a strategy from Fortnite.
This gradual interconnection of car and phone communication traces two different, but related, breakdowns of middle-class thresholds. On the one hand, Cooper is traumatised by the contagious proximity of social situations that threaten his ideal of middle-class masculinity, but on the other hand Lauren is traumatised by the inescapable presence of just this masculine hubris, both in Cooper and her ex-husband, which threatens what little bourgeois security and stability she has left. Suspended between these two trajectories, the film’s car chases take us from the freeway, to the working class neighbourhoods that it represses – the space beneath the freeway – and from there back to an idealised form of suburbia in the guise of a winding maze-like housing development where Lauren finally hides.
As we move from the veneer of middle-class life, to the working-class world it represses, and then back to a middle-class fantasy, Cooper has to change his modus operandi in order to continue the chase. When he arrives at the housing project, he poses as a policeman on the threshold of Lauren’s mother’s house – her last resort – and replaces his black SUV with a family SUV. For a brief moment, we seem him as a regular man, a purveyor of common sense law and order. Lauren does still wrest back control of middle-class space, but only just, and the film ends as precariously as it begins, poised anxiously for the next road rage encounter.