Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 19, 2003 3:26 am 
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Growing pains

"Slaughter Rule" is a first-time Sundance film by the twins Andrew and Alex Smith that stars Ryan Gosling and David Morse, with an excellent cast featuring Kelly Lynch, Clea Duvall, Eddie Spears and David Cale. Photography in unusual two-strip widescreen format Cinemascope is by Eric Edwards, who shot "My Own Private Idaho," and some of the Montana landscapes have that same poetry, but this time the focus is on a dead-end town heading into winter.

Roy Courtney (Ryan Gosling), a high school football player, gets one bad piece of news after another. His estranged father has been run over by a train and killed, perhaps a suicide. Right after the funeral he gets cut from the team. Then he encounters a seedy roving six-man football coach named Gideon (David Morse) who sells late edition newspapers, sings in a bar, and looks out for the diabetic town drunk, Studebaker, who seems to be more than just a pal. When they meet in a bar, Gideon, who mysteriously knows all about him, insists that Roy is his next star quarterback.

Gid's hard sell and excessive charm already make us suspicious. The trouble is (and that's just one more of a string of downbeat events to come) that rumor has it Gid likes boys, and that one of them died with him when he was elsewhere in the state. It's a tough tradeoff to accept this guy as your coach just to play the game, but Roy is desperate to play football and to have an adult male mentor in his life.

It feels like this could have been a powerful movie: it does have some powerful scenes. Both Gosling and Morse turn in complex and interesting performances that enliven their strained relationship, but there is little to admire in the screenplay, which meanders too much and is too downbeat. Clea Duvall has moments, but only that, as Roy's older girlfriend, a bartender. Eddie Spears as Tracey, Roy's Indian best buddy and fellow football player, has good looks and charm to burn, but aside from glimpses of a lousy family and abusive father he has little background and not much of a developmental role to play in Roy's life.

The central scene is a tussle in Gid's rundown room when he gets Roy in a bear hug and can't let go. This is where his uneasy repressed sexuality comes out and Roy's horror of it is stimulated. David Morse bites down hard on his juicy role and Gosling, who later was to show his electric energy and boldness in both "The Believer" and "Murder by Numbers," is mercurial and kaleidoscopic in his range of emotions throughout the movie, from hard and aggressive to soft and vulnerable. If only Gosling didn't have that reedy, Mickey Mouse Club look and spiky hair he would have all the material to be a major star. He is a major acting talent. He's a risk taker with great presence and it's a crime that there isn't even a US video or DVD of "The Believer" out yet.

One trouble with the direction of "Slaughter Rule" is that, partly in an effort at authenticity, dialogue is often throwaway. There are lost lines in every scene and after a while you get used to not really following completely.

The situation generated by Gideon is uncomfortable and the movie never resolves our discomfort; it just worries with it, and carries it from scene to scene.

The team does well at first, but things look worse and worse as the weather gets colder and the coach seems odder and odder. Roy clings to him out of the desperation of need, for want of anything better. He clings to his girlfriend but she rejects him when he seems too immature to her and shows that he doesn't connect sex with intimacy. Before long she leaves town on a bus and Roy just manages to say goodbye. It's another good moment for Gosling, but the relationship hasn't been rounded out and is just dropped.

Football games have been done to death with all kinds of slickness, and usually they end with the traditional agonizingly obvious, achingly suspenseful last minute win for our hero's team. That kind of cliché is avoided here, but while many football movies are too slick, here the game sequences are sloppily edited and too halfhearted and anticlimactic to engage real interest.

Does this movie have to be so persistently downbeat? Roy's initial misfortunes are only the beginning. His relationship with Gid is clearly doomed. He only gets a girlfriend in order to lose her. Studebaker, Gid's sad pal, dies in a car. Then in the final game Roy's best mate Tracy gets his neck broken. This game initiates a desperate, drawn out finale. Gid invokes a metaphorical "slaughter rule," a rule of six-man football that if one team gets far head, the other resigns to avoid needless bloodshed. His point is that they're worn down and that without Tracy they haven't a chance. "A strong man knows when to walk away." But Roy yells and screams to egg the team back into the game, calling Gid a wimp and finally a queer. He drives off in his truck without giving Gid his usual ride and Gid wanders off into the tundra as if to die. But Roy goes back and rescues him, we see him and Tracy in the hospital, and Roy walks off into the sunset seemingly happy. It's all very unsatisfying -- a string of anticlimaxes without focus, without the sense of an ending.

For all the unhappy events and soul searching that occur, nothing is ever resolved. What makes the screenplay weak aside from its meandering pace is that secondary characters like Studebaker and Roy's mom aren't at all developed. Another curiously missing element is school. Roy is a high school student, yet we never once see him go near a school or pick up a book. This is where you miss a good writer about teenagers like the Eighties' S.E. Hinton, who would have made the boy's social and daytime existence, classmates and friends come vividly to life. Instead of doing what high schoolers actually do, Roy spends all his time at bars or practice, a pretty odd combination especially since at his father's funeral he refused a drink because he was in training. Six-man football seems to be all consuming, especially when your coach has sexual problems, but not demanding enough to require avoiding hangovers.

Gosling is impressive, but the movie lacks the focus for his talents that "The Believer" provides. An experienced, charismatic supporting player, David Morse gives his all in his lead role as Gideon, but without a sharply defined plot his confused character flounders and seems overwrought.

March 19, 2003

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