SXSW: 'Aggression Scale' successfully invokes rage – against its makers
AUSTIN, Texas - Like the thugs who put the film’s plot into motion, “The Aggression Scale” is as shameless as it is stupid. The story of a family fighting back against a group of gun-toting hoods who come in search of their boss’s money, director Steven C. Miller’s South by Southwest debut is despicable, mean-spirited sleaze that survives only on the pretense that it could be interpreted as exploitation “fun.” Featuring performances by former Jason Voorhees Derek Mears, two “Twin Peaks” alumni and one of Harmony Korine’s “Gummo” collaborators, the film is thoughtless and trashy in all of the wrong ways.
Ray Wise (“Peaks,” “Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie”) plays Mr. Bellavance, a recently freed crime boss who sends his underlings to retrieve $500,000 in “getaway” money that some former employee stole while he was in prison. Led by Lloyd (Dana Ashbrook), the four-man team ruthlessly mows down a series of suspects before arriving at the freshly-bought home of Bill (Boyd Kestner) and his wife Maggie (Lisa Rotondi), newlyweds who are awkwardly trying to cajole his son Owen (Ryan Hartwig) and her daughter Lauren (Fabianne Therese) into calling one another siblings.
But after Lloyd starts torturing Dad and his new Mom in order to determine the whereabouts of the missing cash, Owen grabs his estranged “sister” and the two make off in the woods. With Lloyd’s colleagues Chissolm (Derek Mears), Freddie (Jacob Reynolds) and Wydofski (Joseph McKelheer) in hot pursuit, Owen’s history as a violent delinquent becomes an unexpected asset as he hatches a plan to save them while also serving their pursuers with a well-deserved comeuppance.
Although female objectification is one of the mainstays of exploitation cinema, much less genre films in general, “The Aggression Scale” exceeds even the boundaries of good “bad” taste in its depiction of Lauren, whose adolescent body Miller lasciviously photographs as if the script itself hadn’t just told us that the character was definitely underage. The extended shower scene in which he shows us sideboob is the point of no redemption, but before that, Therese is wearing the shortest shorts humanly possible, and later, she hurriedly dons a revealing tank top to make sure her arms and chest are as exposed as her legs.
Thankfully, Miller never subjects the poor actress to a rape scene or some other kind of assault. But he compensates for not fully abusing her by making her character a shrieky, worthless mess who gets only one moment of “empowerment” that appears to exist for no other reason than to pre-emptively answer this very criticism.
Lauren not only unilaterally relies upon Owen to be rescued, she inexplicably breaks a window with her hand early in the film, leaving her simpering and vulnerable as the thugs close in on her in scene after scene. And by the time screenwriter Ben Powell decides to pointlessly transform her teenage petulance into some kind of retaliatory moxie, Lauren has become such an unwieldy mess of contradictions that her heroic one-liner – “lights out, bitch” as she smashes a lamp over a guy’s head – is purely comical.
But the script as a whole is such a moronic, half-considered jumble of clichés that her inconsistent behavior is the least of the film’s problems. Within the world of the film, Lloyd, Chissolm and company are apparently such badasses that they never need gloves or masks or any other kind of disguise to protect them from being apprehended, even when they’re blowing people away on the front lawn of their home as children play outside next door. As their boss, Wise is a one-dimensional, unscrupulous blowhard, but his “employees” seldom if ever seem intimidated by his threats that they’ll be next on his hit list if they fail, and otherwise operate with a carelessness that make him only marginally less culpable for the murders than if he’d committed them himself.
Meanwhile, “Twin Peaks” fans will recognize Ashbrook as former teenage delinquent Bobby Briggs, and Lloyd feels depressingly like what Bobby might have grown into one day – an underling who’s moronically overconfident about the fiefdom he’s been granted by someone much more powerful. Among the thugs, only Mears makes anything more interesting out of his character than the script demands; lending humor and humanity to a guy who could easily have been a monolithic, fearsome figure, Chissolm is the only guy you’re remotely interested in of that foursome, and by the time he’s suffered his last indignity, you actually feel sorry for him since he’s the only one who seems to recognize that what they’re doing isn’t just dangerous, it’s ridiculous.
Finally, there’s Owen, whom others have already suggested resembles “Home Alone”’s Kevin McCallister if he watched “Hostel” instead of “Angels With Dirty Faces.” Probably described best by a colleague as “baby autistic MacGyver,” Owen is one of the single most preposterous characters ever conceived – a truly reprehensible glorification of kids like Dylan Klebold who shoot up schools as an outward expression of their destructive, misanthropic tendencies, whose “First Blood”-style survivalist tactics prove invaluable against even trained, bloodthirsty killers. What’s worse than his absurd gift for turning household objects into deadly weapons, however, is his indefatigable ability to accurately predict and respond to the behavior of his pursuers; not only is he constantly one step ahead of them, but he always has on hand exactly what will hurt them most, be it an endless supply of razor blades, children’s jacks that have been sharpened, or a filing cabinet that he’s somehow moved from the back of a moving truck to the top of a stairwell.
The film’s final moments are more or less emblematic of how lunk-headed and misguided are the filmmakers’ values – first when Lauren defends her parents’ greed and “insults” one of her foes with the riposte “at least they were rich for a minute,” and then when a “happy” ending culminates in glib, joyful, almost freeze-frame revenge against the family’s enemies. While that theoretically counts as a spoiler, consider yourself lucky if anything above discourages you from making the effort to actually see the film. Because “The Aggression Scale” makes only one notable accomplishment in all of its myriad offenses and failures: it’s the kind of movie that’s so bad it makes you angry at the filmmakers, ultimately inspiring the only revenge that means anything in Hollywood – namely, not patronizing their films.
For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @mtgilchrist on Twitter.