Magnolia Pictures
Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee/United States 2008

A standard vigilante set-up turns into something much more interesting about age and bereavement in Red, a gothic modern-day Western from Jack Ketchum’s novel that combines a surprising cast with a chilly atmosphere which seeps into your bones. It also gives the majestic Brian Cox what would be the undisputed role of a lifetime, if he hadn’t already had several of those with probably a bunch more still to come.

Cox plays Avery Ludlow, widower and owner of a small-town convenience store whose truest – indeed only – companion is his faithful hound, Red. One day while minding his own business, Avery gets needlessly victimized by a trio of juvenile hooligans led by Danny (Noel Fisher) who set about robbing him but wind up slaughtering Red as well. Distraught, Avery’s first instinct is to seek not justice but a simple apology, via Danny’s dreadful nouveau-riche father Michael (Tom Sizemore). But Michael does not share Avery’s sense of parental responsibility, and from there things just get worse.

Decent hard-working Avery, worn around the edges like an old boot and hanging onto a value system that gets increasingly frayed as violence spirals around him, would be a fine part for any actor, but Cox really sinks his teeth into it. He makes Avery’s righteous fury spin off into something nastier as the character becomes obsessed with forcing Michael to discipline his children, for reasons that have everything to do with Avery’s own family history. Eventually all of Avery’s darkness and a horrendous backstory come out in one epic monologue that flays the character wide open, and the audience too.

What works spectacularly well in Red, at least if you like a certain breed of American B movies, is combining this distressing air of torment with the kind of genre casting you would not expect to see here. Welcome faces appear at regular intervals: Michael’s wife – who spends her scenes looking intimidated as all hell – is played by Ashley Laurence, more or less missing in action since Hellraiser. Richard Riehle turns up, to explain to Avery that killing a dog just isn’t considered that much of a crime. When Avery visits the parents of another of the kids, Robert Englund opens the door; and when his wife comes over it’s Amanda Plummer, radiating instability like a light bulb. And all this on top of Sizemore, already beaming in from a planet all his own. On paper this kind of casting absolutely should not work. On screen it’s terrific, a throwback to an era when great old character actors would turn up in genre films just to snarl a few lines at each other, and when scriptwriters were more interested in adults than youths.

The writer in question here is Stephen Susco, who has to be held responsible for adding a tiny sticking plaster of happy-ending, courtesy of a puppy and a TV reporter played by Kim Dickens. But other than that he crafts an intense piece of woodland fury and certainly seems well in-sync with his director – which is slightly remarkable, in the circumstances.

As described by Cox, Susco and the jovial Trygve Diesen in a Q & A after the screening, the film was initiated and part-filmed by Lucky McKee, whose macabre sensibility in films like the hard-to-forget May probably accounts for quite a bit of the film’s tone, and possibly some of the casting as well. (McKee apparently filmed everything with Sizemore and Englund, and between them they get an awful lot of screen time.) The production then collapsed, in circumstances no one seems willing to elaborate on, and the project sat in limbo for months, probably only surviving through Cox’s attachment as producer. Diesen eventually stepped in to complete the job.

He’s done a fine job of covering whatever cracks there were, with muted photography by Harald Gunnar Paalgard and a very John Ottman-style score by Soren Hyldgaard tying things together. You do have to wonder exactly what kind of film McKee was in the process of making when the lights went out, but whether or not Red is actually that movie, it’s still something of a triumph for Cox to have dragged both it and Avery into such vivid life.

© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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