Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Aggression Scale (SXSW 2012)

Directed by: Steven C. Miller
Written by: Ben Powell

It would be a mistake to dismiss The Aggression Scale as another "been there, done that" home invasion exploitation movie. Certainly, the plot description does little to differentiate itself from this mostly tired and uninspired sub-genre. The expected home invasion ingredients are there -- brutal killers, upscale house, remote woods-enshrouded location, unsuspecting suburbanite family -- to concoct a cringe-worthy low-budget recipe for torture, rape and indulgent gruesomeness. For all these reasons, I detest home invasion movies. I love The Aggression Scale.

The plot follows four ruthless hitmen that have only 48 hours to track down the cool half-a-million stolen from their vengeful mob boss, Bellavance (Ray Wise). Leaving a pile of dead bodies in their wake, they follow the money to the thieving father Bill and his family fresh off moving into their nice, brand new, spacious home seemingly far away from any densely populated area. Highly conspicuous, indeed. That's the setup, and this is literally a setup.

Director Steven C. Miller and screenwriter Ben Powell know you suffer from home invasion fatigue and they utilize these tropes to establish what appears to be a boorish retread initially, even structuring the plot for the ruthless killers to arrive precisely as our helpless attractive teen daughter steps out of the shower wearing nothing but a towel. Thankfully, the filmmakers unveil their surprise just as we're about go down the obligatory sexual assault path by unleashing Bill's snarling little badass son, Owen (Ryan Hartwig), who saves his dripping wet damsel-in-distress step-sister Lauren (Fabianne Therese) with baseball bat bash attacks and some nifty razor blade booby traps. And hereforth, the bigger (and pleasant) surprise is that The Aggression Scale is less or a horror film and more so a grisly action film.

The action bent uniquely transforms the home invasion premise into a fun-filled picture, eschewing dreadful overtones commonly infused with these types of films. The fun factor is propelled through seeing this little kid run roughshod on the baddies, putting them on the run and fearing for their safety, especially after they stumble upon medical records affirming Owen's long history of violent behavior with entrapping school bullies, leaving them hospitalized and in one case missing an eyeball. Basically, Owen is a disturbed n' deadly, survivalist-read version of that kid in Home Alone, but one that goes for the jugular rather than the belly laughs. According to these records, Owen ranks a 9.5 out of 10 on the aggression scale, which charts aggressive behaviors in middle school-aged children.

Derek Mears (Friday the 13th) makes a great turn, sans mask for a change, as whiny thug Chissolm, exhibiting the most fear, pain and resistance to messing around with this psychotic half-pint. Part of the entertainment is recognizing that Mears is most known as the intimidating, unstoppable killing machine mowing down youngsters and witnessing the role reversal as he's now the one scampering in fright from the kids. That's not to say that Mears' iconography does all the work here either. Mears emotes a natural comedic timing, while not hamming it up or winking at the camera, in exclaiming his worrisome "these damn kids" remarks and begging head honcho thug, Lloyd (Dana Ashbrook), for an assignment that keeps him from harm's way. I'd also be remiss not to mention that Ray Wise injects yet more entertainment value in his sparse portrayal as the mobster kingpin calling the shots, slathering just enough extra cheese on his performance to make you grin.

All this fun-filled praise does not mean that The Aggression Scale lacks grit or avoids delivering the gore. On the contrary, Miller directs the picture with a workman's-like quality, bypassing flash, adding a realism to the violence. As for the violence itself, you feel the on-screen mayhem and see the blood gush yet Miller avoids glorifying and/or sensationalizing any of it. Adding to the realistic quality, there's a suddenness to when that violence breaks out that makes it very effective and incredibly arresting at the same time. It's a further credit to scribe Powell that no one feels safe throughout the picture whether they're the apparent good guys or bad guys. And while we definitely know who the audience should root for, Powell's script is crafted in a subtle line blur where none of these characters are cleanly or clear-cut good; they all seemingly have some knowledge of this mobbed-up money or some hint of a darker past.

Make or Break scene - The earlier mentioned shower scene. At this point, I had no knowledge of The Aggression Scale and entered the film expecting a paint-by-numbers home invasion movie, which I was none too excited to view. And the way this shower scene was shot and its placement in the film, I assumed we were going to get that movie I didn't want, but when this scene capstoned with Owen's intervention, turning the tables on the killers, it felt fresh, unexpected and set the tone for the rest of the film. It genuinely surprised me. I suppose that's the beauty of watching World premiere films at festivals like SXSW.

MVT - Ryan Hartwig as deadly middle schooler Owen. The character's usage is integral to story and the film without a doubt, but Hartwig's performance makes the movie possible. His work is the lynchpin to making this everything work. If he doesn't work, the movie doesn't work. We all know the issues with kid actors, and the abundance of poor acting jobs displayed by overwhelmed children. Hartwig meets the challenge, delivering a believably lethal edge through a quiet, intense performance.

Score - 8/10

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