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Image Credit: 

above: Russell Crowe in Unhinged (2020)

In the Dark

A Spectrum of Violence

Unhinged

Directed by Derrick Borte ◆ Written by Carl Ellsworth ◆ Produced by Ingenious Media ◆ Distributed by Solstice Studios


Take Me (2017)

Directed by Pat Healy ◆ Written by Mike Makowsky ◆ Produced by Mel Eslyn and Sev Ohanian ◆ Distributed by The Orchard


Bushwick (2017)

Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion ◆ Written by Nick Damici ◆ Produced by Nate Bolotin ◆ Distributed by RLJ Entertainment

 


In Unhinged, Russell Crowe plays Tom Cooper, a laborer who drives a flatbed pickup truck to work. Because his character is prone to unbridled anger, this is worrisome, especially since he’s just swallowed a vial of oxycodone. What is he angry about? We never learn. Maybe he’s steamed because his commute to work starts at 4:03 a.m.

Whatever has irked him, the thing to attend to here is that he’s steamed to a state best described as parboiled. Best to keep out of his way, especially if you’re his wife. In the first scene, he dispatches her with a ball-peen hammer, the current weapon of choice among Hollywood’s frenzied psychos. You may recall Joaquin Phoenix wielding one quite lethally in You Were Never Really Here (2017). 

Cooper’s anger is rather a mystery. Although he’s a laborer, he lives in a magnificent suburban house, a grand affair in pristine condition. Shouldn’t this make him happy? How can a simple laborer afford such a palace? We never find out. But don’t ask questions. Just watch him beat his wife with that hammer. If this fails to kill her, what he does next certainly will. He takes a plastic container of gasoline and liberally douses his house with it before setting it ablaze. This being a Hollywood film, the flames instantly engulf his abode in roof-high billows. Having blown off a little steam, he is ready to meet the day.

As he takes the local ramp onto the highway, a woman and her third-grade son drive alongside him. They’re late for school so naturally she nudges her way into Crowe’s lane. Being a gentlemanly chap, Crowe smiles and taps his horn to acknowledge her discourtesy. The lady, however, is not in the mood for polite horn tapping and so doesn’t respond in kind.

Her lack of courtesy deeply offends our road warrior. Soon Cooper stops tapping his horn and starts tapping her bumper. And so the war begins, and what a battle it is! Unsignalled lane changes, sudden stops, perilous accelerations: When it’s over, Cooper has directly and indirectly killed three or more people. His nonstop snarling is so distracting that it’s difficult to keep count.

Crowe is an accomplished actor who has proven his talent in many films. His choice of projects, however, has been erratic. In A Beautiful Mind (2001), for instance, he took on the role of Princeton’s Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, John Nash. In that film, we’re given to understand that, between classes on probability tables, Nash secretly worked for the Department of Defense, rooting out Communist agents infesting the university.

I thought A Beautiful Mind was a very good biopic but that its portrayal of Nash as a commie hunter quite odd. Then I read Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash and discovered that, far from working for the DOD, he had once attempted to defect to Communist East Germany. In truth, the real Nash was neither a demented lefty nor the hallucinating right-winger that A Beautiful Mind made him out to be. Instead, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia that rendered him seriously confused.

Unlike the biopic of Nash, Unhinged remains wholly fictional in its dramatization of a feminist portrait of male wrath. Nevertheless, it violates the usual norms of fiction, including enabling viewers to suspend their disbelief. I submit that a driver racing through the streets of New Orleans so carelessly that he’s causing fatal accidents every block or two would soon have the police on his tail. But in this film, Cooper is all but invisible to the law.

I should mention that Crowe, who has always been on the fleshy side, is in this outing certifiably obese at over 300 pounds, by my estimate. But Crowe’s weight doesn’t seem to have any bearing on his character. Cooper could be just as much a monster at 190 pounds as he is at 300. Of course, Crowe’s performance may be intended to be a public service warning. Drink enough Foster’s, and this could be you. Whatever the cause of Crowe’s girth, it is quite alarming.

The rest of the movie follows Cooper’s road rage antics until, at long last, we’re saved by a tardy police intervention. Unhinged hasn’t a purpose other than its witless attempt to shock its audience with various vehicular calamities. Since these are never believable, the movie fails at its limited mission.

Violence of a sort is the topic of another film, Take Me starring Taylor Schilling— on leave from her television series, Orange is the New Black—and Pat Healy, who also wrote and directed the film. Both put in admirable performances. The goofy entertainment they’ve devised is quite amusing.

0121-UNHINGED-2_copyIn Take Me, Ray Moody (Healy) is a would-be entrepreneur with a new business he’s sure will be highly profitable. He offers to kidnap his clients for eight hours at a time and then return them to their normal lives. Why does he think this would be a successful business model? As he explains, sometimes people want to disappear. They may want to avoid unpleasant tasks, shun troublesome people, or duck a professional speaking assignment. Others, because of their wealth or professional status, are candidates for abduction and they want to learn what to do should they fall prey to criminals intent on holding them for ransom. Seems straightforward, doesn’t it?

As unlikely as it is, Moody’s business seems to be a moderately thriving one. The proof is on his dining room wall on which he’s proudly pasted 30 photos, each a smiling portrait of a satisfied client. When we first meet him, he’s got a terrifically obese gentleman strapped to a chair in his basement. The fellow has contracted Moody to help him overcome his unhealthy addiction to fast food. Moody’s therapy is simple. Rendering the fat man immobile, he forces greasy, condiment laden hamburgers into his mouth one after another. Does his remedy work? A few scenes later, Moody smiles triumphantly as his client enjoys a virtuous salad in a nearby restaurant. But Moody isn’t always as successful.

When Anna St. Blair (Schilling) secures his services, his business begins to skid off its entrepreneurial rails. Anna requests a weekend-long treatment, during which she wants Moody to slap her. Although this violates the explicit terms of his business code, the $5,000 she’s offering is too irresistible to pass up. So, after a mild degree of reluctance, he agrees to her wishes.

Preposterous? Definitely. But as a comic premise it works quite handily. As you would predict, Anna inflicts many a surprise on Moody. With her perfectly round blue eyes, she confronts him with a mixture of sweet innocence and urbane mockery. Suffice to say she renders him off-balance.

While Take Me is not an entirely successful film, it will keep you guessing until the conclusion of its 83-minute run time, which is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself. It’s also blessed with Schilling’s far-from-inconsiderable charm. Despite having briefly seen her in Orange is the New Black, I never registered how beautiful she is. Although today’s critics are supposed to be officially immune to an actress’ looks, I confess I’m quite susceptible. So sue me.

Another film that deals in violence and plenty of it is Bushwick, named after a section of Brooklyn, New York that I know quite well, having lived a couple of miles away from the neighborhood 40 years ago. It’s one of New York’s several reclamation successes. Originally a middle-class area, it declined to a near slum during the 1970s when it was infested by drugs, crime, and murder. Those who could afford to relocate did so. By the ’90s however, housing and rental prices had fallen so low that bolder citizens saw opportunities and began to move in, with gentrification following along. I mention this because the film is strikingly behind the times. It uses the Bushwick of the ’70s to tell a long-ago story of urban despair and brutality.

Fortunately, the film stars the former professional wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista. He’s excellent as an apartment building superintendent with a pronounced aversion to violence. He gives a quiet, surprisingly endearing performance.

0121-UNHINGED-3_copyGiven his size and obvious musculature, Bautista looks like a human monster. In fact, he’s played just this sort of role in several movies, most notably in the James Bond film Spectre (2015) in which he pounded the bejesus out of Daniel Craig. In Bushwick, by contrast, Bautista seems almost meek. Except, that is, when he feels compelled to defend two young women. Then he rises to the occasion, pummeling two black felons into submission to prevent them from raping the ladies.

Bautista, who is one of the film’s producers, makes Bushwick work. He’s a man demonstrably capable of inflicting violence, but holds himself in check unless there is no other choice. This, of course, is a convention in hero-themed films and novels, but with his understated performance Bautista makes it seem quite new.

Tellingly, many critics turned a cold shoulder to the film. I’d guess they don’t want to be called out for praising a film that might offend Black Lives Matter rioters. 

George McCartney

George McCartney

George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles.  He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).

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bournite
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Sorry to ask, but what on Earth is a "flatbed pickup truck"? As I recall the film he drove a pickup. I know what a flatbed is and it is not a pickup. How do you combine the two? Is it anything like a coupe station wagon?
 
 

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