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Russell Crowe: Unhinged role reflects on ‘rage in Western society’

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There’s something highly unusual about Russell Crowe’s latest film: it’s actually being released in cinemas.

Unhinged is the first major new movie to be screened in theatres for several months, after the coronavirus pandemic forced most to close their doors.

As a result, there is now a backlog of films which were due to come out this spring, such as Mulan and Tenet, waiting to be released.

But Crowe’s road rage thriller is the first big new film out of the gate, or “the canary in the coal mine,” as the film studio’s president put it recently. Crowe is confident, however, that film fans are keen to return to theatres.

“The idea of going to the cinema is something a lot of people are really yearning for,” the actor tells BBC News. “In the movies, all the crazy [stuff] happens on the screen, not actually in your life, and that’s a more comfortable position for people to be back to.

“I know personally, I’d love to go to a movie right now, to sit and have that experience and feel that sort of rush when something cool happens on screen.”

Cinemas have been allowed to open in the UK since 4 July but many have waited until this week, to give them time to train staff and put adequate cleaning measures in place. Crowe says their re-opening is a major step forward in the return to normality.

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Drive-ins like this one in Mexico City have become more popular during worldwide lockdowns

“We want to be able to take control of things and make decisions, about something even as normal as going to the movies,” he says. “Right now, you’ve just got to rely on the fact that exhibitors and local governments are making a series of rules and observations about how we can do things safely.”

Unhinged tells the story of a man who massively overreacts when a woman rudely honks her horn at him. The man, clearly unbalanced, becomes hell-bent on revenge, sparking a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

At 90 minutes long, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it’s the kind of fast-paced escapism made for the engrossing world of cinema.

‘Societal rage’

It would be easy to think that, for an experienced actor like Crowe, a role like this would be a walk in the park, as his character only has one central emotion – pure anger.

But, he points out: “The singular nature of that rage, is actually a complicated thing to achieve, because you’re used to coming into the room as an actor, you’ve got to bring your bag of tricks, the experience, all these different things to play complicated people and spread this gigantic tapestry up.

“With this guy, you don’t get the opportunity to use any of those parts of you, that humanity, that sense of humour, charm. To utilise those aspects would be to really undercut what the movie is trying to do. There is no rationale behind this character’s actions.”

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Caren Pistorius plays a mother who becomes the target of Crowe’s character

Crowe’s reason for taking on the role was because it tapped into a certain anger or selfishness which, he feels, has become the default position in recent years.

“I started to realise this type of rage is happening continuously all over the place, that seems to be a place we’ve arrived at in Western society,” he says. “For our example it’s a guy using a car as a weapon, but it’s also people stepping into places of worship, schools, nightclubs, and opening fire. It’s people going crazy in a supermarket over toilet rolls.”

The coronavirus pandemic saw shoppers fighting over items such as loo rolls and pasta, while mass shootings such as the 2016 attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando have become tragically common in recent years.

“What are we seeing?” asks Crowe. “And why is it there? That’s why it became clear to me that the movie was saying something much more important.”

Hurricane season

Unhinged faced some major obstacles even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. The film was shot in New Orleans last year, during hurricane season.

“All of the road scenes were so challenging, just because of the environmental issues we were dealing with,” explains director Derrick Borte. “It just made it unlike anything I’ve ever done before.”

The actors and crew experienced two different weather extremes – filming in cars without air conditioning during intense heat on some days, while facing torrential rain on others.

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Director Derrick Borte faced significant environmental challenges while shooting the film

“On a set, when you have a lightning strike within 10 miles, you have to shut the whole production down for half an hour,” Borte explains. “And if another lightning strikes within that half hour, then the clock resets. So basically, you end up losing one to three hours a day, which you don’t get back.”

He recalls when the first hurricane of the season was headed straight for New Orleans. “Even though by the time it struck land it was technically a tropical storm, it still shut down production for a week,” he says. “The road out in front of my apartment had 4ft of water running down the street.”

And yet, on the hot days, Borte says, temperatures reached 40C (105F). “You couldn’t even consume enough fluid to stay hydrated,” he says. “So at lunch I would get an IV from a physician that would show up, and I’d get some hydration via a bag of saline, just to be able to go back out to the second half of the day.

“So it was a really gruelling couple of months down there, and I don’t think it really shows on screen, which is good, but behind-the-scenes it was definitely something that was a factor every single day for us.”

Of course, Crowe points out, having to ignore external factors while shooting is all part of being an actor.

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“Well man, it’s same old same old when you’re talking to me,” he laughs. “I started in this business when I was six, and I’ve been doing feature films since 1989, so I’m quite used to, on a day it’s snowing, pretending I’m having fun frolicking on the beach! There’s a lot of crazy [stuff] that goes on.

“I just take my hat off to Derrick, this whole experience for him… In this situation you’ve got a new studio, a much bigger budget than for his last movie, and you’ve got a hurricane, you’ve got floods, and you’ve got a pandemic in post-production. So it’s been a very challenging period of time.”

For the last few months, the only cinema available to the public was drive-ins, which have witnessed something of a resurgence.

“My first ever movie experience was a drive-in, actually,” notes Crowe’s co-star Caren Pistorius. “Because I grew up in a very small town in the middle of nowhere, and my friend’s mother actually snuck us in the back of this Ute. And it was just the most magical experience.”

Pistorius struggles to remember the name of the movie, “but it was a Jean-Claude Van Damme film, so it was high action and intense!” she laughs. “But it’s not so much the film that stuck with me, it was more the experience. If you’ve ever been to a drive-in, it’s pretty incredible.

“So I have really fond memories of cinema,” she continues. “And yeah of course I’ve missed it a lot, and I can’t wait to go back and share that experience with family and friends, I just hope everybody stays safe in doing so.”

Unhinged is released in cinemas on Friday 31 July.

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