Steve Braunias goes to the movies
Why would anyone want to go to watch Unhinged, the new Russell Crowe movie in which he plays a vastly overweight psychopath who kills a lot of people
over the course of a day somewhere in New Orleans and is driven to violence partly because of road-rage (a motorist honks her horn at him quite loudly) but mostly because he's straight-up unhinged? All of this sounded very promising as I caught the 131 bus to Henderson on Sunday and bought my ticket and an icecream at the WestCity mall.
Why would anyone want to make Unhinged, a movie so instantly loathed that its best review is "sort of terrible" (GQ)? The director is Derrick Borte. No, me neither; but, as a complete nobody, he's got as much right as any A-lister to direct a Hollywood movie in these weird and fractured times. Covid has changed everything, from the air that we breathe to the entertainment we need. We live in an age of constant threat and vigilance. Every day the worldwide Covid death toll goes up; the much-anticipated second wave of the virus is old hat and now there's talk of the third wave. New Zealand is doing amazingly well but the continuing lockdowns and their ruinous effect on people's livelihoods, kind of makes it difficult to celebrate. Everything is so serious. Worse, everything depends on intelligent information: our lives are ordered by the men and women in white coats working out of epidemiological laboratories. They know what they're doing. Their advice is solid, proper, meticulous. Billy Te Kahika jnr and his gang o' goons offer the joy of mindless alternatives. Unhinged goes one better: it offers the joy of mindless violence. Right now that feels like a relief, like a pleasant escape from the slow, grim reality of our plague year.
Why would anyone want to write Unhinged, a movie so widely hated that its next-best review is "needlessly unpleasant" (Screen International)? The screenplay is by Hollywood hack Carl Ellsworth. Asked in an interview what made him want to become a screenwriter, he said, "The pivotal and affirming moment was when my dad took me to see the first Die Hard movie. The packed audience was going crazy – rooting for this ordinary guy to prevail, to rescue his wife and beat the bad guys … My favourite movies are all about asking ourselves: if we were in that position, what would we do? It's about putting the everyday person in extraordinary circumstances." Ellsworth has taken the genre a step further. Unhinged is about an ordinary guy who kills his wife and beats good guys to death.
Why would anyone want to take the lead role in Unhinged, which The Hollywood Reporter claimed is "unwatchable"? Russell Crowe does whatever the hell Russell Crowe wants to do. That's his thing. He doesn't give a damn what The Hollywood Reporter or Screen International or GQ thinks. But you can tell he's thinking all the time throughout Unhinged, feeling his way into the role, honouring his character, giving the fat psycho a measure of bathos – in every scene, his actions and his silence act out those famous last words said by Paul Newman's character Luke before he's shot and killed in Cool Hand Luke (1967): "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
Why would anyone want to go to watch Unhinged? There were only two other people at the screening I saw on Sunday at WestCity: a really old lady in a wheelchair and her only slightly less ancient caregiver. I opened the door for them when the movie finished and said, "Well, that was jolly." Crowe's character killed his ex-wife and her partner with an axe, killed a lawyer with a butter knife, killed a young woman with a steak knife and killed countless others in car crashes. Unhinged was misogynist, brutal, nihilistic, downright misanthropic. The world it depicted was broken and worthless, a place where bad things happen for no credible motive – Crowe's character tells the horn-honking motorist that he wants to teach her what a bad day feels like and that sets off his day-long mission to kill everyone she knows. "Yes," said the smiling old dear in the wheelchair. "It takes your mind off your troubles, doesn't it?"
Next week: Diana Wichtel