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Movie Review: “Unhinged”

One of the very last movies I saw before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters was “The Hunt.” Originally scheduled for release last summer, “The Hunt” was yanked from the calendar after allegations that the film (an update of the classic story “The Most Dangerous Game”) glorified progressives massacring red-state Americans in a secluded compound. This brouhaha, it turns out, was a rather awkward case of missing the point. The film ended up depicting spiteful elite progressives kidnapping red-state Americans after being implicated in a fringe conspiracy theory—and ironically, in so doing, vindicating that theory. Imagine a kind of meta-QAnon story as a horror film, and you’ll get the picture.

Accordingly, probably the most honest reading of “The Hunt” is that it’s a conservative-leaning story: one that manages to be self-critical about some propensities on the right to engage in conspiracist thinking, but one that ultimately turns around and that argues that a fundamental cynicism about elites is entirely justified. “Unhinged,” for its part, goes in almost exactly the opposite direction.

In the opening minutes of the film, an overweight, hydrocodone-popping Russell Crowe (credited only as “The Man”) breaks into a home in a glitzy subdivision and kills the occupants with a fire axe. Following a brief altercation at a traffic light the next day, The Man becomes a seething avatar of pure road rage, chasing after single mom Rachel (Caren Pistorius) and her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), as well as everyone else in their lives.

That’s pretty much it—once the groundwork’s laid, director Derrick Borte leans hard into the propulsive momentum of his film, upping the stakes further and further with each passing minute. Though marketed as a “thriller,” “Unhinged” is better described as a full-on horror flick: there’s plenty of brutal and bloody hand-to-hand fighting to go along with the vehicular carnage. For what it’s worth, if slasher films are your thing, this is a pretty good one—but those seeking something more date night-friendly may want to sit this one out.

What’s notable about “Unhinged” isn’t its script, acting, or camera work (which are all serviceable enough, if unexceptional). Rather, what stands out most about the movie is the fact that the fears that it taps into are the precise flip side, politically speaking, of those powering “The Hunt.”

Through isolated snippets of exposition, we learn that The Man dropped out of school, was cheated on by his wife, was subsequently drained by divorce lawyers, and was fired from his manual-labor job just before his pension vested. Accordingly, calling the film a depiction of “toxic masculinity,” as some critics have, is too facile: rather, the villain in “Unhinged” is an incarnation of every terrifying stereotype of the blue-collar right held by ardent readers of the “New York Times.” Obesity? Check. Low educational level? Check. Opioids? Check. Giant pickup truck? Check. (In the encounter that initially triggers his rage against Rachel, The Man denounces the demise of a previous culture where people had respect for each other and apologized for things.)

If “The Hunt” tries to depict something that the median conservative dreads above all else (a malicious conspiracy of decadent elites, constantly trying to prey on the helpless), “Unhinged” tries to do the same for liberals—focusing on an unstable Trumpy Bro on the blood-soaked warpath. Explicit slogans aren’t needed (or present): the aesthetics and mood are enough.

Only time will tell whether this split between “right” and “left” horror will shape the future of the genre. Horror films have always been transgressive, but weren’t always politicized in quite this way—earlier iterations appealed to a relatively unitary understanding of the “popular culture.” For example, in 1973, the demonic horror of “The Exorcist” drew on relatively ubiquitous religious values and a cultural sense of the sacred that was still strong enough to provoke sharp reactions from its audience. In the 1980s, the first wave of teen slashers (including such classics as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th”) capitalized on deep concerns over risky behavior among teens and the impact of the sexual revolution.

But then again, perhaps this reading is wrong. Maybe there isn’t really a “split” in the genre at all: right now, the only monster that matters is the political Other, however one chooses to interpret that.

That can’t be good for the culture at large. But it does make for interesting movies.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2020 in Thrillers

 

TV Series Review: “You”

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about TV shows (I tend to stick to movies), but frankly, I haven’t had such a visceral reaction to a piece of media since the first time I read “Gone Girl.” “You”—bizarrely situated at the nexus of psychological thriller, romantic comedy, and outright horror—is like nothing I’ve ever seen on TV. On one hand, it’s lurid, over-the-top trash; on the other, it’s an eerie indictment of contemporary culture that ends up far more nuanced than it believes itself to be.

When we first meet him, narrator Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) is a charming, sensitive New York bookstore clerk who’s longing to meet the right girl. As soon as aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) strays into his shop, though, it’s not love—but rather obsession—at first sight. Joe sets to work tracking her on social media, insinuating himself into her life, and removing all obstacles to a relationship with her…by whatever means necessary. Things promptly descend into a grotesque, beautiful, and ever-more-watchable spiral of stalking, betrayal, murder, and self-deception: Joe certainly does get the girl, but at a terrible cost. (Season 2, for its part, follows a roughly similar arc, but takes place in Los Angeles and stars the rather more self-confident Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti)).

This is the kind of show it’s very easy to pigeonhole as being about one particular thing or another. And that sort of analysis is all well and good, as far as it goes. Yes, it’s about the dangers of technology. Yes, it’s about toxic masculinity. Yes, it’s a dark satire of the problems faced by inordinately privileged people. But I think that whether or not the showrunners are even aware of it, there’s more going on beneath the surface.

It seems to me that, at bottom, “You” is an interrogation of the essential character of—with all respect to the New York Times—modern love. And this modern love, we come to see, is a fundamentally performative phenomenon. Over and over again, the dynamics of romance in “You” play out across Facebook pages, Instagram feeds, and Tinder profiles, as characters curate pristine images of themselves for potential suitors. These technological platforms are the tools by which Joe learns about and stalks his quarries—but, crucially, they are also the spaces within which the women he pursues present carefully curated versions of themselves.

This profound sense of “self-commodification” bleeds from the public into the private. In every “You” character’s life, sex—and romance in general—becomes a transactional and experiential thing, undertaken casually, rather like a fancy dinner or a trip to a posh tourist destination (and subsequently evaluated in the company of friends and onlookers). At bottom, “You” is a haunting depiction of a world that has lost the capacity to think of love in remotely self-sacrificial terms. Here, all relationships are necessarily subordinated to the cause of self-actualization (in Joe’s case, to horrifying effect, when his preferred form of “self-actualization” proves irreconcilable with another’s).

The first-person framing of the show drives this home with genuine force: by telling the story from Joe’s perspective, the show forces the viewer to confront their self-centered impulses head-on. How many of us haven’t, at one time or another, thought of other people—even those we love—as supporting characters in the story we tell ourselves, rather than as protagonists in their own right? (It’s worth noting that this sort of narrative device—that is, the possibility of audience self-identification with an aberrant character like Joe—runs strikingly counter to prevailing pop-culture headwinds, which tend toward either bland moralism or avoidance of moral issues altogether.) This is all quite uncomfortable, but in a fruitful way: in fearless acknowledgement of the problem—the utter self-absorption of this age—comes the first step toward healing.

To be sure, not everyone will enjoy this show: if you’re not up to watching 20 hours of a rather nightmarish take on “500 Days of Summer,” “You” might not be for you. But to my mind, the show is that rarest of things: a piece of pop culture that manages to capture the anxieties of an age without self-consciously doing so. And that is something worth celebrating.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2020 in Thrillers

 
 
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