Russell Crowe Becomes ‘Unhinged’ In a Demented Thriller About Road Rage

After numerous delays we finally get to see Russell Crowe go on a rampage in “Unhinged.” Few films this year have a title so literal and appropriate. It is as if director Derrick Borte felt an urge to find a way to compact into one film all the infamous rage you see on the news about toxic Americans. We’re angry, we’re breaking down and we’re becoming increasingly violent out of pure despair. 

“When the script came to me my initial reaction was I loved it. I’ve come pretty close to something like this happening to me in the past, and everyone I know has been close to this situation as well where you just honk at the wrong person on the wrong day and things can go horribly wrong,” Borte told Entertainment Voice. The wrong day that kicks off “Unhinged” involves Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a single mom facing all the nightmares single parents ponder. She can’t ever get her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school on time, her mother’s healthcare bills are piling up, and she might lose her job. While attempting to get through a traffic jam, Rachel makes the wrong turn on another driver, Tom Cooper (Crowe). When Rachel refuses to acknowledge his grievance with a “courtesy” honk Cooper vows revenge, and revenge Cooper gets, by going on a rampage to make Rachel’s life a deadly hell.

What drives Tom Cooper? At the beginning of the movie we see he has already committed a ghastly murder, later he will vent at people in Rachel’s life as if they were representations of what he despises. He steals her phone at a gas station, tracks down her lawyer and beats him to death spewing what sounds like toxic, ultra-conservative talking points. Borte was originally inspired by one of the great films about threats without clear identity. “I originally wanted to make it like Steven Spielberg’s ‘Duel,’ but then I realized Russell to me is more like the shark in ‘Jaws.’ The script had that kind of visceral effect on me. This is one of those films that grabs you by the guts and won’t let you go for 90 minutes, but there are also multiple, relevant ‘of the moment’ things going on.”

Crowe’s deep gravel of a voice and brutal stare are almost tailor-made for the demented road rager. “When you’re casting a film, you kind of have that wish list, that person you picture when you’re reading it. Usually you never get that person, at least in my experience (laughs). But I thought, why not shoot for the stars in terms of , you know, who be the perfect person to play this role? And it was Russell. He brings such a nuanced, layered performance to this character who really has no humanity, nothing left, has been kind of reduced to the only way he doesn’t feel invisible is to rage. Russell does it in such a way that you can see beyond some of his actions. He’s playing a character not uncommon to the world we’re living in today.”

“I almost didn’t send off my audition because I was mortified by my performance,” Pistorius told Entertainment Voice about landing her role. “Then I got a call back saying ‘we want you to come to New Orleans to audition with Russell. So I had to tell my boss at my day job that one, I’m an actor, and two, that I have to leave for New Orleans tomorrow for x amount of time. But he was really supportive.” After exploring the city following her audition, Pistorius got the call confirming the role. She’s a good choice for a down to earth mom suddenly being trapped in a bizarre action nightmare. Rachel and Cooper rarely get to clash on screen, this movie is more of a chase, as Rachel has to evade Cooper while witnessing from afar the violence he begins to unleash. “Russell’s character is not your average, everyday man. I only did about three scenes in person with him. The rest was over the phone. I had to create an imaginary thing to run away from and be terrified about.”

“It’s about how you best express that material on camera,” said Borte. “Unhinged” swerves from intense scenes of Cooper mouthing off to sudden bursts of brutal violence even on the road, with at least one freeway chase resulting in Michael Bay-style mayhem. “It helps when you have a great team around you. Having the right people on set makes it work out. I tend to deflect and throw the praise on everybody else.” 

In a time when the news is littered with images of fury and drawn weapons, where people appear to be snapping due to societal, economic and especially political differences, how will “Unhinged” play? Cooper feels like an allegorical stand-in for every deranged mass shooter or random attacker who goes over the cliff. “I hope people are entertained, I hope they are enjoying some escapist fare. Secondly, if there’s things in it that make them want to talk about it, to discuss any issues of the moment, that’s always great as well. But primarily it’s about coming along for the ride.”

“I had a marvelous stunt driver,” said Pistorius. This is the kind of film where the stunt driver is the real star, considering how much of it takes place inside moving vehicles. “He would sit in a cage in another car, so I would mime drive while performing.”

As Rachel tries to outsmart Cooper’s furious pursuit, there’s a disturbing simplicity to how all he seeks is an apology. “Unhinged,” in a simplistic way, wants to unnerve the viewer with the idea that any small moment can derail into threatening terror. “I’ve probably had a little road rage in my life, nothing to the level of Russell’s character in this film. But I’ve most certainly come in contact with other people road raging for seemingly unimportant reasons. That’s what seems to connect people to this film. Everyone’s had a brush with it somehow.”

Pistorius has never encountered a Cooper in the real world, but loves driving while knowing the threat is out there. “I love driving. I loved doing those driving scenes. I don’t have road rage. I’ve never experienced it. I know about people experiencing it. But I know how bad it gets out there, and it gets bad.”

Unhinged” releases Aug. 21 in select theaters.