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


Movie Review: “Irresistible”

A thing not many people know about me is that, over the years, I’ve spent a good deal of time working on political campaigns. And I don’t mean sitting behind a desk and coming up with a policy platform—I mean block walking, phone banking, leafleting, going to potlucks, and all the other sorts of grassroots stuff that doesn’t make for very exciting television. Frankly, I do it because I like it: there’s a very distinctive sort of energy to campaign work, a sort of scrappy seat-of-the-pants dynamism that feels rather like racing down a steep hill in a vehicle cobbled together out of milk crates and tin cans.

It should be unsurprising, then, that I’ve seen a good number of political campaign comedies over the years. And I’m happy to report that this summer’s “Irresistible”—written and directed by Jon Stewart, now streaming on Amazon Prime following a direct-to-video release—is probably the best of the bunch.

Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is an elite Democratic political consultant who harbors a longstanding rivalry with Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, in full Fox News-blonde glory). Following the upset of the 2016 election, Zimmer finds himself at a loss. But he soon stumbles across a viral YouTube video of small-town farmer and veteran Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) passionately denouncing a proposed voter-ID law at a town council meeting, drawing on both American compassion and Christian values to support his critique. For Zimmer, this is catnip—a chance to find the new face of the Democratic Party, someone who can speak to rural America and help the Dems recapture the white working class. So off Zimmer goes to the tiny Wisconsin town of Deerlaken, determined to conscript Hastings to run for mayor as a Democrat. (Naturally, Faith and the Republican apparatus soon show up, dumping millions of Super PAC dollars into the incumbent mayor’s campaign in an attempt to deprive Zimmer of his new star.)

The mainstream critics haven’t been especially kind to “Irresistible” thus far, and I think this is in part because the film explicitly presents itself as, at bottom, a protest against the influence of big money in politics. If that’s all we’re meant to take away from the movie, then I agree it’s average at best.

But if that’s where the movie’s messaging stops, I’m not sure Stewart himself realizes the biting force of his own film.

Stewart has plenty of negative things to say about Republicans, to be sure—they’re framed as the villains, after all—but at bottom this movie feels like it was written to puncture center-left pieties. In a particularly lacerating sequence that recalls Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” Zimmer shepherds Hastings to a high-dollar fundraiser in New York City. Hastings, utterly out of his element, denounces them for their wealth relative to impoverished Deerlaken— and unsurprisingly, the guilt-stricken liberal donors immediately flood his campaign with cash. Also coming in for skewering are the inability of D.C. urbanites to talk to Americans of a different social class, and the smug assumption that the Democratic National Committee has a right to the votes of all minority Americans.

But at bottom, the real target of Stewart’s film is the pervasive assumption that coastal power brokers—of whatever political party—are smarter and more worthy of success than the residents of America’s impoverished heartland. In this, “Irresistible” evokes recent books like Chris Arnade’s “Dignity” that stress working-class Americans’ longing to be seen as fully human, as valued participants in the national conversation, rather than as problems to be solved by statisticians and journalists.

Accordingly, I found “Irresistible” to be an appropriately withering assault on the narratives that political elites tell themselves. What is needed is that the chattering class learn to listen, rather than talk over, the ones whose votes they crave—and also invest in, rather than demonize or cravenly exploit, the forgotten communities of America. And as someone who has lots of opinions on lots of topics, that’s a message I need to hear and internalize as much as anyone else.

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Posted by on June 28, 2020 in Contemporary

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