Visual Filmmaking in Russell Crowe's 'Unhinged'
Four minutes into Unhinged I had to pause and write about some very smart visual filmmaking.
A man sits sweating in his pickup truck in a suburban neighborhood. Distress is written across his face and a jumpy camera helps communicate his jumbled mental state. The man pops some unnamed pills from prescription bottles and begins to settle down. The man pulls out a match and lights it with his thumb. We get a shot of a suburban home with a for sale sign in the yard. Just from the visual cues alone you know where we are and what is about to happen.
Or you know most of what is about to happen. The man steps out of his truck and into the rainy night. The camera remains in the truck. We see the man open the back door of the four door truck and retrieve items from the back seat. The man now has what appears to be a pickax and a can of gas and with sudden fury he begins to batter down the door of the suburban home. From our perspective in the passenger seat of the truck, we see an upstairs light come on. The tension of the moment just went up tenfold.
The man has battered down the door with the pickax and is met by a man and woman in bed clothes and terrified. We can see the man from the truck begin to assault the man in the house with the pickax in a terrifyingly violent fashion. The woman runs to another room with the man from the truck in pursuit and the audio on the soundtrack now tells the story as we hear violent blows from the weapon and the painful screams of the female victim.
Through the doorway we see the man from the truck beginning to pour gasoline all over the home before the camera finally cuts to a close up shot of the man exiting the home and walking toward the truck as flames can be heard on the soundtrack and are glimpsed as the man gets back in the truck and we now watch from in front of the truck as the desperate and agitated driver begins to drive away and flames begin to grow enough to flicker in reflection off the wet steel of the truck.
This is how the movie Unhinged starring Russell Crowe begins. No words are spoken, no character is introduced in a traditional sense. We can logically conclude that the home once belonged to Crowe’s character and that perhaps the woman inside is a former wife or lover, though there is no evidence that she knows the man who is assaulting her, she doesn’t call out his name or beg for his sympathy in what little time she has,
So what we have is plenty of intrigue. Why did this man commit this horrific act? What is driving him over the edge and what will this unpredictable, violent man do next? All good questions on which to start a movie but something is nagging at me. Why keep us at a distance from the violence? Why did we spend all of that time watching from the truck as if we were passengers and then suddenly we are no longer passengers.
Is it because we are at first passengers on this man's journey into darkness? Perhaps we are intended to act as passengers who are maybe sympathetic in this man’s desperate moment. Then, when he goes over the edge, we’re no longer along for the ride. We need to get out of the truck and watch him drive away. We must become witnesses rather than passengers. No longer is this decrepit figure a sympathetically sad loser but a violent, murderous monster who we are no longer aligned with.
Regardless of whether you buy into my notion of the meaning behind this scene it’s hard to deny how effective the opening scene of Unhinged truly is. The scene simmers with tension and shifts our perspective from one of sympathy to horror with efficiency. Without words director Derrick Borte has told a complete visual story that sets up and pays off while also setting us up for whatever the rest of this story has in store.
I don’t know if the rest of Unhinged will work as well as the first 4 minutes but here’s hoping. I was so enamored of the first few minutes that I stopped to write this article before finishing the rest of the movie. That's how effective the first moments of Unhinged were for me.