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Movie Review: Red

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If you’re going to make a movie about a man and his dog and kill off the dog a few minutes in, you’d better hope the other half of the equation can carry the remainder of the narrative. Luckily for Red, Emmy award-winning actor Brian Cox – whose nuanced take on that darling cannibal Hannibal in 1986’s Manhunter remains unsung – is up to the task.

One of the few remaining British thespians unsullied by the gaudy promises of Hollywood, Cox is well equipped as Avery Ludlow, the half-demented driving force of this troubled production, and although the behind-the-scenes difficulties sully some of the film’s most potent moments, Red, in the end, is a quiet triumph that speaks to the talents of all involved.

Avery is a decorated veteran of the Korean war whiling away a quiet life in rural America with that most constant of companions: his dog, the eponymous Red. One morning, the old friends drive down to an idyllic spot where the woods meet a beautiful lake for a little fishing. Avery sets his rig down and casts his bait into the calm waters; Red settles in contentedly beside him. It’s just another easygoing day for the pair until three teenagers looking for trouble happen upon them. With the cold barrel of a hunting rifle to his temple, Avery bites his tongue, acquiesces with their demands; he offers up his beat-up old truck and hands over what little money he has, but it’s not enough to satisfy their sneering arrogance. Danny McCormack, leader of the pack and elder brother to the hesitant Harold, turns the gun on Red and gut-shots the poor dog before stalking off to spend his hard day’s earnings on a sit-down dinner, leaving a stricken Avery to pick up the bloody pieces.

What begins as a contemplative countryside portrait becomes a more pointedly emotional character study of an apparently powerless old man trying to cope with the callous barbarities of contemporary society, but it’s not long before co-directors Lucky McKee and Trygve Diesen demonstrate their preparedness to undermine the audience’s expectations a second time. Avery, you see, buries his dog with a grunt and a frown, putting his grief aside to deal more directly with the murderous youths. Red becomes something akin to a revenge thriller; one old man with a heartfelt vendetta versus three little pigs and the institutions that shelter them.

Initially, all Avery wants is for them to take responsibility for their actions, but the very reasonable recompense this well-liked, peaceful store owner seeks is met with nothing more substantial than polite indifference and the odd empty apology. Robert Englund and Tom Sizemore as the teenagers’ fathers shrug off his accusations, and the DA doesn’t think Avery’s case is worth the trouble it would take to prosecute. Things seem to be looking up when a friend brings in a local TV journalist to cover the story but even her human interest pieces aren’t enough to bring out the truth. In the end, Avery feels he has no choice except to take the task upon himself.

The story gets going quickly and wraps up with a satisfying bang, but Red’s pacing suffers some as Avery bangs his head against the wall trying to do the right thing without succumbing to the vengeful insistence of the proud army man he once was. There’s some uneven work through the second act, too, particularly from Kim Dickens as the intrepid reporter, whose three-year deployment in the Deadwood desert as an abused prostitute-cum-lesbian brothel operator seems more natural in comparison. Stephen Susco’s script doesn’t give her much to work with, but she can’t convince even on the sole count of her one-note role. More damningly, there’s no chemistry between her and Cox despite the screen-time they share, the end result of which being that the pivotal secrets Avery reveals to her character ring hollow. Sizemore is similarly one-dimensional as the ultimate villain of the piece, but he gives his shallow character arc the usual poor man’s Michael Madsen, which is to say he frowns quite well. Cox, too, stumbles on a few of his lines, most notably outside the courthouse when he snaps at the Santa-shaped sheriff.

The cast are otherwise well equipped – young Noel Fisher of The Riches is just shy of scene-stealing as anarchic dog-slaughterer Danny – but it’s lucky, in the end, that so much of Red relies on Cox, whose efforts ably support the meandering narrative. Although his performance is too underplayed to be a powerhouse, Cox gives everything away while overtly betraying nothing; his finest moment, in Red at the least, is when Danny’s father throws a chance at redemption back at Avery. A revelatory shot captures the eventual bubbling-over of his embitterment: as the old man makes to leave, Sizemore’s character stops him in his tracks and the frame splits an extreme close-up of Avery in half, the better to see the patience in his age-worn face positively twisting into an astringent grimace. The mise-en-scene casts Avery as every bit the Two Face the audience has been waiting to see, and when he finally lets loose, the horrific results are suitably gratifying, if a little throwback.

The cult horror movie calibre of the two directors works well enough for Red on the rare occasion the script calls for such expertise, but Lucky McKee – who took on the adaptation of the Jack Ketchum novel and nearly saw out principal photography before abandoning the project without explanation – and Trygve Diesen are smart enough to stay out of the way and let Cox carry the narrative. While the climactic showdown lacks in vital physicality and there are some missing continuity shots that recall the film’s troubled production, their work is assured enough that their decidedly seedy filmographies are sure to improve.

Red suffers from a script from The Grudge screenwriter Stephen Susco, whose dialogue here tends toward monologue and whose grasp on pacing seems strangely saggy, but the human tale of the novel that inspired his work is authentic enough to shine through. Avery’s tragic history, however, is misguided in either iteration of Ketchum’s story – a blunt instrument that undermines much of the subtlety of his hurt and the anger it encourages. Nonetheless, six months in development hell, two directors, and a flat script hardly matter in the wake of Brian Cox’s compelling performance. He, alone – and despite a few foibles, he’s certainly not – is more than enough of a reason to see Red.

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