In 1993, Michael Douglas was an angry white man on a rampage across Los Angeles in Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. Douglas’s unnamed character, listed as “D-Fens” after his vanity license plate, was an unemployed, unwell defense engineer whose accrued grievances — about the crime, and the heat, and high prices, and also the homeless, and the immigrants, and the ex-wife he wasn’t allowed within a hundred yards of — finally boiled over in the opening scene. D-Fens, so convinced in his heart that he’d been denied a life he was owed, was a prescient creation — had the character made it to 2016, screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith insisted, he would have voted for Trump. He was a spiritual successor to Howard Beale and Travis Bickle, maybe, but what set Falling Down apart was the wobbly way it insisted its protagonist was an Everyman, slipping between sympathizing with and satirizing his actions. If that was meant to be the point — “I’m the bad guy?” D-Fens asks, aghast, when confronted by the cops at the end — it’s one disregarded by those viewers who hold him up as a misunderstood hero.
There’s no danger of the same kind of bad fandom when it comes to Russell Crowe’s character in Unhinged, a thriller directed by Derrick Borte and written by Carl Ellsworth. He’s introduced sitting in his truck outside the New Orleans–area house he used to live in at 4 a.m., numbing himself out on opioids and fiddling with his wedding ring until he’s ready to break down the door, kill everyone inside, and torch the place. He sure seems meant to bring D-Fens to mind though, in his lack of a name (he’s credited only as “Man”), and in the details of his backstory — laid off by an auto plant after an injury, history of domestic disturbances, divorce, restraining order — doled out via news reports that play in the background throughout the movie. The Man is D-Fens as an untrammeled villain, a variation on the character who’s focused all his fury on a single person instead of doling it out across the city. His chosen target is Rachel (a wan Caren Pistorius), a frazzled woman in the middle of her own divorce who’s late in dropping her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) off to school. She has the misfortune to honk at the Man when he lingers too long at a stoplight that’s turned green. He asks her to say sorry, she refuses, and he growls at her that “I don’t think you really know what a bad day is, but you’re going to find out.”
Rachel doesn’t know that the Man has nothing left to lose, and that he’s decided that teaching her this lesson is a good enough way to go out as any. What seems like an unpleasant vehicular encounter escalates into a killing spree after the Man follows Rachel to a gas station where he steals her phone. The cat-and-mouse, station wagon-versus-pickup truck chase that follows isn’t especially exciting, though the aims of Unhinged are broadcast as low from the start — there’s a whole preface of news clips stressing a decline in police resources that seems there to explain why no one can catch the Man, even when he’s murdering someone in the middle of a crowded restaurant. These bursts of brutality are less effective than Crowe’s victim-blaming mutterings. Covered in flop sweat, with the puffy face of someone who hasn’t slept for days, Crowe looks appropriately, sometimes majestically, like shit. When his character rants about the injustice of divorce attorneys, his willingness to commit suicide by cop, and how “every sacrifice that I’ve ever made in my invisible life has been dismissed, judged, ignored,” he snaps into focus as a modern-day bogeyman — the homegrown terrorist who’s channeled his feelings of resentment and invisibility into apocalyptic violence.
But elsewhere he feels like a random, glowering baddie, not sharply drawn enough to make Unhinged anything more than a lackluster thriller. “Falling Down is hardly the first movie to feature a white man flailing self-righteously in a sea of people who are either not male or not white or neither and who are messing up his game,” Carol Clover wrote in Sight & Sound in 1993, when Schumacher’s film came out. “What distinguishes it from the run-of-the-mill backlash fantasy is the demographic precision with which it defines that man’s consciousness.” In the 27 years since, that consciousness — that insistence, against all evidence, that white men have it the worst — has been an agonizingly unignorable influence in American politics and culture. It feels like a failure of nerve on the part of Unhinged that, after sketching out the Man so efficiently, the movie then ultimately presents itself as one about road rage, a “you never know who’s behind the wheel of the car next to you” cautionary tale. In untethering the character from time and context, Unhinged defangs him as well, reducing him from an avatar of a grander ugliness to just a guy who’s gone off the rails after having been left behind. And without that, there’s nothing much in the movie that’s worth remembering, much less risking a possible COVID-19 infection to see. For a movie marking a week in which theaters are reopening, Unhinged feels a lot like a movie that would be best caught on cable someday.
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