Monday, August 11, 2008

Seeing Red

I used the poster as an illustration, but I watched Red on the HDNet Movies channel, where it bowed last Wednesday, after festival play and right before a bound-to-be-small theatrical release by Magnolia Pictures. It's a revenge picture, based on a book by cult novelist Jack Ketchum, but it plays as much as a Western, and boasts a fine, laconic performance by Brian Cox. Cox's Avery Ludlow, a small-town proprietor who has lived somewhat reclusively following the death of his wife, has a lot to be mad about: For no good reason, other than "meanness," three teens shot his old dog, Red, a gift from the Mrs., after giving up their plan to rob him while he was fishing. The fat-cat father of two of the boys, Michael McCormack (Tom Sizemore), refuses to believe his story and stands by his kids, one of whom feels remorse over the hushed-up incident. The white-trash parents of the third kid (the redneck dream team of "Freddy" Robert Englund and Amanda Plummer, the Duse of indies) dummy up. There's no legal recourse for Avery to find justice. A sympathetic TV reporter (Kim Dickens, Cox's Deadwood co-star) broadcasts a story, which only adds fuel to the fire. Add in a few ghosts from Ludlow's past and pretty soon a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, as Cox brings his fight to Sizemore's doorstep.

Red is co-credited to two directors, quirky horror film maker Lucky McKee (May) and the film's producer, Trygve Allister Diesen. A somber picture, with no fantastic elements, the movie doesn't have McKee's stamp. Its naturalism may have defeated him--scuttlebutt suggests he tagged on the sentimental closing scene, which comes close to invalidating most of what came before but runs counter to his usual instincts. I reckon it plays more evenly if you just leave the theater, or hit "eject," after the final confrontation. (Then again, if you want to exit on a cute up note, however false it may feel, stick around.)

Largely free of stylistic flourishes, unlike last year's flashier Death Sentence or The Brave One, Red has a pleasing economy about it--a burning building and a car chase are filmed modestly (the fire is pretty much just reflections of flames, with a morning-after reveal of the smoking husk). The eye-for-an-eye theme inevitably rekindles the Seventies, just as the low-slung filmmaking recalls late Phil Karlson pictures like Walking Tall and other backwoods B's of its era. It's a mellower relation, however, with greater emphasis on the eerie quiet of Avery's troubled life than the spasmodic bursts of violence that shake it to its core. Cox is a little too spry for his implied senior citizendom but he lands his character's regret-scarred monologue, with its reverberations into the present. You have to feel for a guy whose life now orbits around the truculent and unappealing Sizemore (behaving himself between rehab stints) and Plummer, a perpetual fright. I feel about her like a dad does about his tomboy daughter: What would she look like cleaned up and wearing a pretty dress for a change?

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