25 October 2008


Directed by: Trygve Allister Diesen, Lucky McKee
Written by: Stephen Susco
Full credits from IMDb

Artists do it in high art and low, from Of Mice and Men to I Am Legend. But that doesn’t make killing a dog anything less than the cheapest manipulative trick a storyteller can try. More so than killing a baby. So what to do, then, with a whole movie built around the unjust murder of a poor, defenseless dog? Red, a heady and leathery B-picture, uses canicide as a starting point, but it’s about a lot more than that murdered mutt—the callous killing, and its aftermath, stand-in here for an entire country gone wrong.

That’s a lot of weight for a single dog or death to carry, but Red, more or less, pulls it off, thanks mostly to Brian Cox, who plays the dog’s owner. With a Death Wish moustache, an immoveable frown and eyes set deep into his pockmarked, mashed potato face, he keeps the film’s emotional level subdued—his rage is quiet. What could easily have been an exaggerated film full of speechifying and on-the-knees weeping instead plays out subtly; after the dog dies, the directors express Cox’s loneliness not through grand soliloquy but through a simple shot of his bedroom door, the wood scarred with the claw marks of a dog that will scratch it no more.

Cox is fishing (or, fishin’) in the woods one afternoon with his trusty pooch—the film shamelessly begins with them in bed together, him chuckling as the dog licks his face—when a trio of teens approaches. After Cox gently and sagely criticizes one of the boy’s hunting techniques, the now emasculated and absurdly sociopathic teen shoots Cox’s dog. “There wasn’t any sense to it,” Cox says later. “It was just meanness.” He tracks down the boy and approaches his father—not for money or for blood, only for a mild brand of justice. Cox wants the boy to be made aware of his wrong, made to feel sorry; at most, he wants him arrested and scared straight. But the boy’s father, a wealthy and influential local, sides with his son, who predictably denies the wild allegations. (The directors make it clear whose side we’re on: Cox is frequently shot from below and up-close, a towering figure in the frame; the boy’s father is shot from a distance, a speck of a man amid the petty accoutrements of his wealth.)

As parents, police and prosecutors rebuff Cox’s modest demands, Red becomes a class struggle: the bratty, privileged moneyed class and its spoiled children against the God-given rectitude of one tough old American man—a vet no less. (It could be the Kennedys vs. McCain, if McCain weren’t so absurdly wealthy.) As a soldier, the one thing Cox learned was: never stop fighting, so he presses on in his righteous but increasingly quixotic quest for justice. “All this time, work and expense,” muses a country lawyer friend, “for an old mongrel you already buried?”

Peculiarly, many of Red’s makers come out of horror movies: co-director McKee, who shot about 60 percent of the film before falling out with the producer, is best known for indie cult faves May and The Woods; screenwriter Susco made his name on penning The Grudge’s American remake and its sequel; schlockmeister favorite Jack Ketchum wrote the source novel; and Robert Englund, sans claws or striped sweater, turns up in a supporting role as a white-trash father. But Red is not a horror movie, it just deals in horrible things—injustice piled upon injustice, a world sick with senseless cruelty, two generations rabid with irredeemable meanness. (Generations that, significantly, won’t stand-up to their selfish and violent leaders.)

If this sounds like a set-up for a conservative philippic about failed institutions and the decline of American values, the film takes a more subversive turn. (It’s clearly not a right-wing film with its sympathetic portrayal of a member of the liberal media.) “It has been said,” a reporter announces, “that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured in the way it treats its animals.” But the guilty boys are not only dog-killers but misogynists. The nation’s morality is in undeniable regress.

Cox and his enemies eventually take their series of escalating retributions too far and the film ends with him in tears, self-critiquing his monomania and regretting the damage caused. There’s no justice, no heroism. Violence begets violence and deeper despair. Red exposes the dark side of vigilantism and as such comes conspicuously from this post-9/11 era of perpetual war. Blind quests for “what’s right’ simply lead the avenger to condescend to the level of his enemies—to the spilling of innocent blood, dog and man’s alike. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

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