'Unhinged': Why Russell Crowe was determined not to justify road rage in new thriller

The Oscar-winning actor plays a man seeking revenge on a horn-tooting mother in Derrick Borte's latest film

Russell Crowe plays a man with incandescent road rage in 'Unhinged'. IMDb
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The traffic light may be green, but Russell Crowe is seeing red in his latest role.  

Crowe, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of heroic Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator, plays an unnamed character – known only as The Man – in road-rage thriller Unhinged.

The film is focused on Crowe's antagonist, who takes umbrage against a fellow driver who dares to beep her horn at him when the lights turn green at a traffic stop in an unidentified US city. Tipped over the edge, he remorselessly pursues her – and her friends and family – with just one thing on his mind: murder.

As compelling as Crowe is, when he read the script, his first response was to immediately recoil from the idea. "I was a bit affronted by how sure I was about that," he says. The New Zealand-born, Australian-raised star is hardly new to extreme characters, as his career-making turn as a neo-Nazi skinhead in Romper Stomper shows. But this was different.

"I realised I was simply afraid of the truth of this film," Crowe says. "That's why I didn't want to go anywhere near it."

The "truth" is that Unhinged is more than simply an adrenalin-fuelled thriller. "I think across western society, we're seeing these explosions of white-hot rage on a very regular basis," Crowe says. "The character in this particular movie is using his car as a weapon. But we've seen [violent] people stepping into houses of worship and schools and nightclubs … we've seen absurd explosions of rage in supermarkets over a roll of toilet paper. So, suddenly, this film is making a direct comment on where we find ourselves in western society right now."

Crowe's nameless driver may be a modern-day bogeyman, though he's far from, say, the knife-wielding Michael Myers in the Halloween horror series. If anything, Unhinged recalls Joel Schumacher's Falling Down, the controversial 1993 film in which Michael Douglas plays a white-collar worker who snaps when events conspire against him. Only snippets of Crowe's character are revealed – such as his constant use of opioids, hinting at an underlying need to medicate an unspecified physical pain. His addiction to the drugs, says Crowe, "is another very big problem in modern America".

On the flip side is Caren Pistorius, the rising South African-born New Zealand actress who made her name opposite Michael Fassbender in 2015's Slow West. She plays mother-of-one Rachel, the luckless victim terrorised to within an inch of her life.

“I never really looked at Rachel as the hero,” she says. “I thought it’s a little bit of a David-and-Goliath story. It is exciting for the ‘David’ in this to be female; it’s been a really exciting part to tackle. But a hero? I see her as an everyday woman who finds herself in a situation that is very much not an everyday situation.”

Pistorius recalls a road-rage incident she experienced as a teenager when a friend of hers cut up another driver.

"This man got really mad and was tailgating him, so my friend turned down a side street and this man followed him and blocked the street with his car." Approached by the individual, her friend manoeuvred his vehicle up on to the curb and made his escape – only to find that the man followed her friend to his house.

"That was pretty scary," Pistorius says.

This film is making a direct comment on where we find ourselves in western society right now

When she began to work on Unhinged with the film's director, Derrick Borte (The Joneses), she began to think of the story in wider terms. "Life's short and anger is a really interesting emotion," she says. "We have all experienced a version of it, but I think this film definitely takes it to a whole other level."

She points to the film’s opening credits, with news clips of real road-rage incidents (as reporters earnestly tell us: “In America, we were born angry”). “It’s very relatable,” she adds. “It is a story that takes an everyday incident and pushes it to an absolute extreme.”

Scripted by Carl Ellsworth (who has more than paid his dues with genre thrillers Red Eye and Disturbia), the film has inevitably split reviewers. Is it promoting male-instigated violence? Kevin Maher, critic for The Times, called Crowe's character the "alt-right uncle of Joaquin Phoenix's incel hero Arthur Fleck in Joker".

Indeed, Todd Phillips's $1 billion (Dh3.6bn)-grossing Oscar winner was called out for sympathising with so-called incels, members of a male-skewed online subculture characterised by misogyny and misanthropy.

Whether or not that's what the filmmakers intended with Unhinged, Crowe points out that it was vital they never tried to explain away his character's motivations with reams of backstory.

epa05535962 New Zealand actor and cast member Caren Pistorius arrives for the screening of the movie 'Denial' during the 41st annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), in Toronto, Canada, 11 September 2016. The festival runs from 08 to 18 September.  EPA/WARREN TODA
Caren Pistorius plays Crowe's victim in the Derrick Borte-directed thriller. EPA

“You can’t suddenly have an expositional speech, where this guy lists the travails of his life that have brought him into this place of complete inhumanity,” he says. “I said to Borte right in the beginning, we can’t have any moments in this character that it appears we’re trying to justify [his actions].”

Unhinged may be a simmering study of toxic masculinity or a stirring look at contemporary psychological trauma. But it's perhaps best seen for its surface pleasures – "an edge-of-your-seat thriller", as Pistorius puts it.

“It’s relentless and it doesn’t stop. I think it’s exciting because it plays on that fear that we all have: how road rage can really change people’s lives.”

One thing is for sure: it’ll make you think twice about tooting your horn at the driver in front of you the next time you’re behind the wheel.

Unhinged will be UAE cinemas from Thursday, September 17