Saturday, August 30, 2008

Red (2008)

Like a personage belonging to a Sam Peckinpah film, Brian Cox's Avery Ludlow is a man touched and perhaps shaped by violence, and now he finds himself, for no reasonable or logical justification, drawn into a potentially deadly personal battle for revenge against three teenagers, two of whom stood by as the other shot Avery's dog, Red, to death before Avery's very eyes. Directed by Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee, the film is adapted from a novel of Jack Ketchum's by Stephen Susco. Not having read the book, one can only speculate as to how successful an adaptation Red is. Taken solely as a film, it's an interesting throwback of sorts to minimalist revenge storytelling often found in the 1970s. 2007 saw several vengeance-themed pictures contribute to the greater sense that that year's cinematic landscape felt particularly inspired by the films of the decade frequently considered by many “cinephiles” as Hollywood's golden creative renaissance.

What is most refreshing about Red, in many ways, is that it seems to avoid the increasingly trite observation that , “A will become more like B if A pursues revenge on B.” Here Cox's Avery is an old man, living a quiet, docile life with his beloved dog, given to him for his fiftieth birthday by his wife, the love of his life, who died in an abhorrent, unspeakable way only a few years later. A scene in which Avery describes the tragic circumstances of his wife's demise in sickening detail feels like a sequence Ingmar Bergman could have conjured. The static, tight shot that isolates Cox's scraggly, weathered face and all of the attendant pained nuances for the duration of his explanation, his head partly framed by a window, appearing against the background of the blackness of the night, like an incandescently pallid plate being set on a dark tablecloth. It would be hypnotic by itself. With Avery's seemingly endless, chillingly intense description of the events that still haunt him, more than ever in the wake of Red's death.

Though Avery comes to question the judiciousness of his own resolve late in the film, Red remains unique from many a vengeance-minded picture today by not drawing unnecessary and ill-suited comparisons between Avery's escalating demand for some kind of personally achieved justice and the reckless sadism evident in at least one of the three teens. The Greek sophist Thrasymachus defined justice as whatever the strongest decide. Aristotle thoughtfully examined justice as an extension of friendship. The great philosopher was appalled by the prospect of people living together in societies exceeding five hundred citizens. Red, interestingly, takes place in a small rural area in Oregon, and yet its depiction of small-town due process displays a certain betrayal of equity and harmony.

The film is shot in a visually flat manner. Much of it has the look of a movie made for television. Yet despite the ordinariness of its texture, the film is persuasively composed. The shots often have an arid, stationary perspective, providing further intimacy at the expense of fluidity and movement. Harald Gunnar Paalgard's cinematography is solid, and sometimes evocative. His lighting in the woods in and around the town, and inside Avery's home, is especially commendable.

Red was fourteen years old when he was slain; in noting the animal's disheveled and homely appearance, the dog-killing Danny (Noel Fisher) is making a statement about the unworthiness of the aged, and his disregard for anything he considers archaic, naturally extending to the “crazy old man” who finally comes to stalk him after finding that legal justice is completely ineffective in punishing the teenagers for their crimes. The incident that resulted in the dog's death began as a tense “attempted robbery”—which cannot be proven—with Danny aiming his Browning directly at Avery, threatening his very life. Danny's brother, Harold (Kyle Gallner) suffers from a wrecked conscience, but Pete (Shiloh Fernandez) finds Danny's antics equally insane and hilarious, admiringly congratulating Danny for being crazy.

Avery's pursuit of righting this wrong, simply by having the three teenagers admit to their wrongdoing when confronted, runs into a proverbial roadblock when he seeks the assistance of Danny's father, Michael McCormack (Tom Sizemore), a thick-headed, bullying and powerful millionaire endowed with pervasive connections that aid him in blocking Avery's options, legal and otherwise. When confronted directly by Avery, Michael McCormack states that the story the old man tells him seems implausible. After hearing his two sons lie, denying Avery's allegations, he immediately takes their side. “You have the wrong boys,” Michael admonishes Avery. “No, I've got the right boys. I'm afraid it's you who have the wrong boys,” Avery replies. Cox and Sizemore make for a combustible pairing, the former's dignity and austerity contrasted against the latter's tawdriness and insincerity. Unfortunately, Sizemore's part is limited. The screenplay and Diesen and McKee do not probe deeper than is simply necessary, allowing the McCormack clan and Pete to almost abstractly represent the moral and cultural gulf between they and Avery. Pete comes from a poor family, the Dousts, and when Avery approaches them, they too deny their son's involvement. Mr. and Mrs. Doust (Robert Englund and Amanda Plummer), with their garbage-strewn front yard and unsightly home, are distinctly of the lower class, and their place in the film stands partly as yet another contrast to be found, illustrating the corruption of the (phony, as Michael McCormack is known to be a crook who became rich) "high class" as represented by the McCormacks perhaps influencing the moral degeneration of some in the low class.

Avery is indeed a man assailed by the anagogic defilement of violence, when he was young. A war veteran, he informs another character of what he learned. “You have to keep fighting,” he says with resigned but vibrantly mettlesome fury. As a quondam warrior, he is reluctant but courageous, methodical but prepared. His fearlessness provokes greater bravery from his enemies, twisting the prevalent cliché of the hero absorbing traits belonging to the instigators he opposes. As the film reaches a potentially ruinous climax, one could contend that it is actually the baddies who take on the attributes of Avery, more straightforwardly confronting him as they tire of his incessant “troublemaking.”

One of the more intriguing aspects of the picture is how the most tragic incident of Avery's life has found itself echoed by the cretinous figure of the rail-like Danny. His eldest son was mentally unstable, apparently a pathological liar, narcissist and finally a devastatingly destructive fiend, and it is with the deep, immutable scarring brought about by his son and the depravities for which he was responsible, that Avery has had to live with since. In meeting with such wantonness and reprehensibility himself, Avery is cursed with the ghastly opportunity to possibly confront the demons that possessed his son. All he had left because of that son was his dog, Red, and intrinsically the death of his animal calls into question the purpose of his life, yearning for answers, for, as he says, “the truth.” In doing so he may be able to answer lingering questions that bedevil him about his son, his wife, his subsequent reclusive existence and most frighteningly, himself.


Craig Kennedy said...

Nice review and nice to be back on the same page with my friend Alexander. :)

I also like how it didn't become some kind of a moral lesson about the dangers of revenge, though there is regret on the part of Av.

In the end I worried i was a little too positive on this's not a perfect piece of cinema, but damnit it's so good to see Cox spread his wings a little bit.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Craig. :)

Yes, I think the film ultimately struck the right note, even if it left many dissatisfied. (SPOILER) Having Avery say, at the end, "I couldn't let it go..." questioning himself after all of the carnage, I think that hit it home and accurately...

I agree, it was great to see Cox "spread his wings" here. He really made the most out of it, making this a fairly riveting character study above all else.

Certainly nowhere near perfect, but because of Cox more than anything, I'm finding it worthwhile to mull over it and discuss it.

Sam Juliano said...

I'm happy that you found more praiseworthy components in this film than I did, but I will admit it was a compelling film to watch, even while you said "no, this can't be" and "C'mon, are you kidding?" Cox was his customary outstanding self in a role where he undergoes a shocking metamorphosis. Your thoughtful and penetrating examination of the characters (particularly of Danny) was most excellent, and the writing (again) fluid and descriptive.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, I knew you didn't think too highly of this film, Sam. I'm glad to hear you thought Cox was "his customary outstanding self"--he takes this role and, to parrot the cliche, makes it his own. I found him endlessly interesting, even if the film doesn't entirely do him justice (no pun intended).

One aspect to this film that I liked was that, despite finally falling into the "revenge" sub-genre of sorts, it doesn't start out that way at all. Avery is simply looking for the teens to admit to their deed. He wants them and their parents to do the honest thing. It simply spirals from there.