It’s never a good sign when a movie suffers the old director switcheroo. It can mean a lot of things but it usually means that something in the production went horribly wrong. Lucky McKee, a sudden sensation in recent horror circles thanks to his morbid and highly original flick, May, got his walking papers no more than a week into production. While a director switch out might doom most features, they nipped this one in the bud early on and the beef between the studio and the director were contained.
I’ll tell you something. I love nothing more than a righteous movie about revenge. Back in the 70’s, Michael Winner and Charles Bronson more or less left the high water mark with Death Wish and ever since then, filmmakers have been more than happy to emulate that liberal to conservative conversion and celebrate the individual’s change of heart about gun laws in the face of great tragedy. A genuinely original revenge movie is hard to come by. If they’re not doing Death Wish, then it’s The Count Of Monte Cristo that is getting the makeover. Red takes a different route, thankfully, and even though it’s not necessarily about revenge the themes are all there. This is about the cost of obsession and just how badly things can go when you combine a compelling need for justice with unchecked firearms.
Avery Ludlow just wants to live a quiet life and run out the last of his days fishing with his best friend, a mangy dog named Red. While out fishing one day, he’s approached by three teens with a shotgun. After some vaguely menacing back and forth and a failure for Avery to turn up any kind of money for them to steal, they shoot Red and walk off laughing. Just about anyone would be shocked by this act, but Red’s legacy holds a deeply sympathetic backstory for Avery involving the memory of his deceased wife and son. A short investigation turns up the dog killer’s name and an appeal to the kid’s father turns up nothing. Even with the support of the community and a piece about the killing on the news, it only bring more intimidation from The McCormack’s, a shady family rich off of trucking money and unspecified criminal deeds in the community. Avery sets off to get a formal apology. Dogged all his life by lies, he decides that this is his line in the sand and from there things go horribly wrong.
I saw Brian Cox in Long Island Expressway (L.I.E.) several years back and there’s a scene where he talks about how good he is at giving head, particularly in the context of teenage boys. Ever since then, the man has intimidated me. So imagine my unending terror while playing Manhunt with my X-Box earpiece in while he shouted commands straight into my ear. I couldn’t even shake that L.I.E. scene while watching X-Men 2. Jesus. But if this proves anything, it’s that he’s an expert character actor. He can sell atrocity like no one’s business and in Red, he plays a deeply sympathetic character whose plight you can really get behind. Everybody hates animal cruelty unless you’re an Italian director making a cannibal movie and everybody can root for the victims of just such a crime. Cox’s Ludlow is a quiet guy and he’s in an exagerrated scene that we can all identify with.
At some point in our lives we’ve all been bullied or put in a position where we’re left feeling utterly helpless, at the mercy of someone else where there isn’t a good reason for anything. Bad things just happen. Red’s plot of one man out for a little justice is paced perfectly but it has some flaws in its characterizations. Villains are deeply insidious masses of walking shit and Avery Ludlow is this sad sack dude who just wants someone to own up. The McCormack’s are illustrated with broad, sweeping strokes of mean, jarring colors but what motivates them, what it is that Mike, head of the McCormack clan and played by professional scumbag, Tom Sizemore, does that makes them so rich and so bad is never explored. There are vague hints but these are paper bad guys made to be so evil and unstoppable that when the climactic confrontation between Avery and the McCormacks goes down, the resolution feels a little underwhelming and a sappy ending about new beginnings almost betrays the entire tone of the movie.
Ludlow’s background is not ignored, though. His motivations seem very extreme and he goes to great lengths to get so much as an apology and an admission of guilt where the rest of us would throw up our hands and resign to the forces of darkness. It’s a compelling backstory, too.
Red’s greatest success is maintaing a steady pace throughout, though. Few such movies can attest to this. So many spend the majority of their runtime showing the hero struggling against red tape and bureacracy to get a murder investigation while the plot hurtles towards its many violent confrontations but Red finds a rhythm early on and builds tension appropriately. Sure, we get the bureacracy, but it’s believable in the context. By the time that guns are drawn, the time feels right for catharsis.
For Jack Ketchum, you get what feels like a subdued piece but in the wake of The Girl Next Door, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Great performances come in from all sides including a turn from Robert Englund and Amanda Plummer as the squirrely, broke parents of one of the miserable teens and Cox vs. Sizemore is a taut, frightening rivalry. I see what Ketchum’s original ideas about the McCormack’s were getting at but you either paint them as symbols of senseless evil or you define their motivations outright. Hinting at some kind of terrifying grip over the townspeople and failing to deliver any kind of explanation knocks a few points off of Red. Otherwise, you get a pretty good illustration of a Ketchum novel and an unusual entry into the saturated revenge market.