Monday, May 14, 2012
The Aggression Scale: Home Alone By Way Of Rambo
A young mom completes her afternoon jog through her affluent suburb, taking a moment to wave at two neighbor hood toddlers playing in their immaculately manicured yard before opening her front door. Before a thought can register she's blown back across her front steps by a shot gun slug to the chest. The man at the opposite end of the barrel strolls over her corpse and snaps a Polaroid.
Less than a minute in and The Aggression Scale has my undivided attention.
The Aggression Scale is a nasty bit of low budget cinema. It has the tone of a seventies exploitation film and a a sadistic gallows humor that runs throughout. It introduces a new killer kid to the cinema pantheon, only instead of your rote slasher it presents a your boy made up of equal parts Kevin McCallister, Mcgyver and John Rambo. Described as an R-rated Home Alone, the description works so far as you believe Christopher Columbus would have no problem making an orphan out of Macaulay Caulkin's character.
To sum up: Out on parole, a mob boss (Ray Wise) finds out one of his low level flunkies have ripped him off to the tune of $500k straight cash homie (copyright Randy Moss). He turns to his hired goons with a list and two simple directions: 1) Find his money. 2)Kill everyone on the list, along with their families and bring back evidence the job is done. Cut to newlyweds Bill (Boyd Kestner) and Maggie (Lisa Rotondi) heading to their new home with movie van and two his in tow. While Maggie's daughter Lauren (Fabienne Therese) has no problem screeching her displeasure at the move, Bill's Boy Owen (Ryan Hartwig) is silent, almost catatonic with his mute disinterest.
We know the goon squad and family are on a collision course, but what makes the film such a joy is the way the layers get pulled back on the family one at a time. Their reaction to an innocuous knock at the front door dismantles the nuclear family facade, and we know what's going to follow later on can't be chalked up to random happenstance. The first half of The Aggression Scale peels back the dysfunctions of the family one layer at a time, letting the kettle simmer on low heat until their past sins kick down the front door. From that point on Miller shifts the focus away from the parents and turns attention to the kids. At this point, we get a long look at the seemingly autistic Owen, and his troubled past that's been hinted at and tiptoed around steps right into the spotlight.
With Owen, Hartwig has created the next great anti-hero as a kid is quick on his feet and always planning a few moves ahead of the hired guns. At one point a character finds his medical file that details Owens psychotic tendencies and reads about a gang of bullies Owen lured into one of his traps ("One of them may walk again") but never connects the dots to what the boy's doing to them now. You can see the wheels turning inside the boy's head as he surveys his environment for the deadliest items he can Macgyver into instruments of destruction. He has to rely on wits and stealth because he's a twelve-year old boy with the proportional strength of-well-a twelve year old boy.
Owen's character is interesting because he's not necessarily someone the audience should root for. Under different circumstances, in a different movie, Owen would be our villain. He fits the description Dr. Loomis once used regarding another cinematic child killer:
I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes... the *devil's* eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... *evil*.
Rotondi doesn't have as much to do as the erstwhile teen daughter, but her wispy good look and her descent into wallowing in the shit her captors stand knee deep in recall the badass women of seventies cinema that had no problem fighting back and fighting dirty when pushed.
Miller makes a gleeful left turn from from a crime thriller towards Wile E K Coyote territory, and no where is this more evident in how it depicts its hit crew. Led by Lloyd (Dana Ashbrook), the quartet starts out as an efficient, no-nonsense killing machine, laying waste to the names on their bosses' list and inching closer to his fortune with minimal stress. These aren't bumbling nincompoops cut from Daniel Stern's cloth. Their ruthlessness adds a hard edge to the hijinx of the film's second half. However, from the moment they encounter Owen, the group is in way over their head. Miller uses Derek Mears, or to be more specific his unique looks and lanky frame, to full comic effect by putting him through the absolute ringer. For his part Mears more than delivers the comic chops to make it happen. As The Aggression Scale marches on, Owen's traps grow more complex and more titillating. His final trap is almost ballet-like in its precision, and earns the seal of approval of anyone that ever spent a rainy afternoon playing the board game Mousetrap on the kitchen table.
I've given up on figuring out how studios work. Why do films that incite the audience to load up potato gun launchers and fire at the screen in piques of rage (The Devil Inside) receive thousands of screens while something that would be a surefire crowd pleaser goes straight to DVD (May 29th). Make no mistake, you're watching The Aggression Scale because you want to watch some fucked up kid who hasn't even undergone the Peter Brady stage rain ten tons of hurt on bad muchachos. Miller and company deliver the goods in spades, putting out a piece of ass kicking cinema that leaves you rubbernecking at the carnage*.
The highest compliment I can pay it relates to my wife. The night I popped the DVD in our bedroom player my wife and I did our usual dance whenever I try to watch a movie in bed on a work night. "How long is the movie?" "About an hour and a half." "I want to go to sleep soon." "I'll start watching it in here and move to the other room when you want lights out." I'm happily enthralled in the film while she's web surfing. About fifteen minutes in the questions start: "Who's that guy? What's wrong with the kid? Do the parents know these people?" About midway through the film the computer is set aside and there's no tap on the shoulder to hit the lights. By the the time our baddie has fallen into the last trap she's peeking through her fingers and telling me to let her know when the "crunchy bits" have passed. ANY movie that gets my wife to stay up past her bedtime is rife with entertainment.