Russell Crowe stars as an angry, murderous driver in the new box-office hit Unhinged.Lifestyle Pictures / Alamy

The pandemic has suspended moviegoing in the U.S. for so long that it makes sense to bring it back with a work as crude as Unhinged. The first film to get a national release in theaters since mid-March, Derrick Borte’s thriller does not demand much rumination. A frazzled single mom having a bad day honks her horn at a pickup truck; its occupant, played by Russell Crowe, responds by chasing her around the city in a murderous rage. As theaters across the country reopen, they’re preparing for the arrival of Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated movie Tenet, which is reportedly so complex that even its actors barely understood it. Perhaps it’s best to think of Unhinged as a pair of cinematic training wheels.

The film grossed $4 million at the domestic box office last weekend—becoming the first movie to see a seven-figure debut since much of the country went into lockdown. Unhinged played in 1,823 theaters around the U.S., benefiting from the reopening of major chains like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark in all but six states. Although California, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland, and New Mexico have kept cinemas closed—and despite coronavirus case numbers that dwarf those of almost every other country in the world—America is looking to restart its movie business. Unhinged makes for an appropriately grim new beginning.

Though chains are trumpeting safety standards that include reduced capacity (25 to 50 percent in most states), mask requirements, and enhanced air-filtration systems, health experts aren’t sold on the idea of sitting in a windowless room with strangers for hours while the U.S. caseload remains so high. And even though Unhinged sold hundreds of tickets per theater, its five best-selling locations were drive-ins, according to Deadline. Audiences are still returning quite slowly to regular theaters (or “hard tops,” as the drive-in business calls them), and studios won’t be able to expect big business until those attitudes shift and major markets like New York and California reopen.

Unhinged is not a film that will slyly tempt viewers back to theaters en masse. It’s a blunt instrument of a movie, in which Crowe does determined work as a villain with no name, no backstory, and no interest in currying audience sympathy. His motivation for chasing Rachel (Caren Pistorius) around New Orleans is barely defined; he’s simply a case of road rage gone nuclear, a nightmare of masculine excess made flesh and blood. The film is more interested in deploying well-staged murder set pieces than in asking deep questions. But those movie kills are effective, and having an Oscar-winning star at the center of them gives the project a glitzier sheen than it perhaps deserves. Plus, it’s essentially the only option out there.

But this week, Disney will add its long-delayed comic-book film The New Mutants to the mix, and MGM will release the legacy sequel Bill and Ted Face the Music. Unhinged’s studio, Solstice, put out a survey underlining enthusiastic audience reactions to the screenings. “97 percent of U.S. moviegoers recommend seeing a new movie in theaters to their friends,” read the press release, citing a survey conducted by the analytics firm Comscore. “Some 57 percent of the respondents stated their top motivation for going to the movie theater was a desire to socialize and return to normal.”

Those sunny survey numbers could change if theaters end up more concretely linked to the spread of COVID-19. For now, major chains are proceeding apace, getting ready for the rollout of Tenet on Labor Day weekend. Nolan’s blockbuster, starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, cost about $205 million and is being advertised as the first major event worthy of people returning to cinemas. Across Asia and Europe, the film stands to earn significantly—the Chinese box office in particular has sprung back to life of late, and Tenet is opening to packed houses around Europe today. But those parts of the world have COVID-19 more significantly under control, while in America, going to the theater remains a gamble.

As I’ve written previously, Hollywood knows that it can wait no longer for America to clean up its act. The major global grosses available elsewhere is compelling studios such as Disney and Warner Bros. to put out their big movies, and several more mega-budgeted blockbusters are scheduled for release through the end of 2020. Just as Unhinged was an amuse-bouche for theatergoers, Tenet will also be something of a test case. If ticket sales are disappointing enough, or if a virus resurgence sends most of America back into lockdown, studios might reevaluate their plans to put out films like Wonder Woman 1984, No Time to Die, Black Widow, and Dune over the next few months. For now, movies are going back into business—whether audiences and theater employees like it or not.

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