First, a clarification: Yes, this is a review about a movie called Red, and it stars Brian Cox. However, it’s not this Red (which also starred Brian Cox). That one came out in 2010. This one came out in 2008 and is completely different. I know, puzzling.
Red is one of those pleasant, unexpected surprises — even if it’s also terribly depressing. Brian Cox stars as Avery Ludlow, a quiet, lonely older gentlemen who lives in a small town, idling his time away either working at the general store he owns, fishing, or hanging out with his loyal mutt, Red. One fateful day, Avery and Red are quietly fishing when a trio of obnoxious, surly teenagers come upon them. The kids grow more and more agitated with Avery’s placid, placating responses, and in the ensuing harassment and robbery, tragedy strikes.
Let’s just get it out of the way: They kill the dog.
Now, I know several of you (if you’re even still reading) have already checked the “not a damn chance” column. I can respect that. But trust me when I say it’s worth sticking with Red, because it ends up being a surehanded, intelligent little film. I expected, based on the description that I read, that it would turn into a crazed, sinister revenge film, as Avery tracks down the boys and exacts revenge, and I admit I was thrilled to discover that it is not. Instead, it’s a gentle, saddening journey through stumbling blocks and an old man’s impotent fury, as every step Avery takes results in simply more pain for himself, and is one step further from justice.
What makes Red work is that in Stephen Susco’s screenplay (based on the novel by Jack Ketchum) Avery doesn’t want vengeance — he wants justice. In fact, one gets the idea that he’d likely be satisfied with a simple confession and a heartfelt apology. Unfortunately, the main culprit Danny (Noel Fisher) isn’t the type — instead he’s an unpleasant, spoiled menace of a child, despite the best efforts of his submissive but well-intentioned brother Harold (Kyle Gallner — Beaver Casablancas from “Veronica Mars”). The boys’ remaining cohort is the downtrodden Pete (Shiloh Fernandez), a mouth-breathing meathead who can’t think past Danny’s last instructions.
Over the course of the film, Avery tries to appeal to an unsympathetic sheriff, a friendly but helpless attorney (Richard Riehle), an unfortunately stereotypically plucky journalist (though still well-portrayed by Kim Dickens), and even the Danny and Harold’s father. It’s that final action that begins the film’s tragic trajectory. The father, played with laconic menace by Tom Sizemore, is a wealthy, abusive ne’er-do-well who sees his own darkness reflected in Danny, and simply doesn’t care.
Brian Cox is, as most know, a most impressive actor and he’s easily the strongest performer here. His Avery is a subtle, quiet, gentle role that is more melancholy than angry, a man who simply wants to find right in a world filled with wrongs. Cox carries this air of frustration and helplessness perfectly, a simple man who doesn’t understand why people can’t simply accept responsibility. In fact, most of the actors carry their weight quite well, even when their parts are thinly written. Noel Fisher’s Danny was a surprisingly strong performance, giving a sharp look at the fragile arrogance that comes with young, entitled people without boundaries or responsibility. Gallner’s Harold is a simpering, ineffectual whiner — the one with a conscience, even though that conscience doesn’t do any damn good — but his portrayal is solid. Sizemore is Sizemore, a sneering jackass without sympathy or remorse. It’s a shallow, poorly constructed character that got more and more empty-feeling as the film progressed and as his braggadocio swelled.
When it did delve into the characters’ history, all of a sudden these twisted, garishly violent pasts came forward that were excessively expository and unnecessary. The actions of each main player spoke for themselves, and there wasn’t a need for scatterbrained histories (the boys’ father has hints of a checkered past that are never brought up again, and Avery has a series of unnecessarily brutal tragedies in his past). Part of the appeal was the “ordinary folks” approach, which made these lurid character motivations pointless.
Therein was the eventual problem with Red — the thin characters were mostly overcome with good performances, but the film’s arc seemed to veer off sharply in the third act. I found myself pretty aggravated by co-directors Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee (yes, that Lucky McKee), though in truth the fault likely lies with the writers. There is a complete tonal shift towards the end of the film, and instead of continuing towards an intelligent, nuanced resolution, they opted for a more movie-style, violent and excessive one. It felt strangely jarring and disjointed, as if a different movie’s ending had been taped over the reel. It wasn’t poorly executed, it’s just that it rang a rather discordant tone compared to the pacing and atmosphere of the first two-thirds.
Red was still an unexpectedly effective experience. I was initially turned off by the premise — anyone who knows me knows that I’m clearly a dog lover, but I will say that those moments are handled mostly with grace and without gore or any shots that are too grueseome (save for one). The idea to make it a man’s dog creates an interesting sociological study — dog lovers we may be, but we can likely agree that our responses wouldn’t be as severe as it would be were the victim a spouse or child, so what do you do? McKee and Diesen take a smart, interesting and subtle approach to this question — for about an hour. However, the film’s ending isn’t quite as satisfying as its beginning. It doesn’t make Red a bad film, merely a flawed one. Truth be told, the film is worth seeing for Cox’s performance alone, but there’s plenty other strong points to make it a worthwhile, if not occasionally frustrating, experience.
Red is available on Netflix Instant and DVD.