What a surprise this film was. I first picked up Red because I have great respect and admiration for Brian Cox and I also noticed that it has the curious distinction of being birected by Trygve Allister Diesen (?) and Lucky McKee (see what I did there?), whose May, Sick Girl and, to a lesser extent, The Woods, are, to me, three genre standouts from the past half dozen years.
Showing the same kind of sensitivity to his lead character as he had done in May, McKee really creates empathy for Cox's Avery Ludlow, an aging widower who simply wants to finish off his life enjoying the few simple pleasures he has left - his house, his general store, and his old dog, Red. All that changes one fateful day down at the ol' fishin' hole; Avery is enjoying a serene day by the water when three boys appear out of the woods, carrying with them a sense of unease and growing menace. For no good reason, the most petulant and brash of the boys fatally shoots Red. Ludlow is shattered, and soon after does some simple detective work and tracks down the boy, goes to his home and tells his father the gruesome details of the killing. The father and local rich guy Mr. McCormack (Tom Sizemore) assholishly disbelieves the story, and after asking his son Danny a few questions to which snide answers are given, dismisses Ludlow's claims as fiction.
With that as a starting point, the film begins to explore some fairly weighty issues, including vengeance, justice, the nature of truth, and how quickly things can spiral out of control when reasonable and rational human interaction is thrown by the wayside.
While some of the scenes suffer from local-theatre-company level acting, what really carries the film is the terrific script (based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, who has seen films adapted from two of his other novels - the brutal The Lost, and the harrowing and tough to watch The Girl Next Door) and Cox's stellar performance. The film really is kind of a one man show, a character study, and Cox delivers a terrifically subtle, nuanced, and heartbreaking performance. I find if my emotional reaction to a character is simply centred around one feeling, then the character is a sketch rather than a portrait. In this case, I felt only hatred toward Sizemore and Noel Fisher's despicable like-father/like-son duo. Unfortunately, these characterizations are closer to caricature than archetype, but they do serve a purpose - they set up the layered performance by Cox, giving him a framework in which to respond and react. Cox's seven minute monologue in which he describes one terrifying night which lead to the dissolution of his family is nothing short of riveting.
Even the film's title, Red, has many layers. Ostensibly about the slaughtered dog, the title also references the bloodshed throughout the film and the blind rage that motivates many of the characters' actions. The theme is also formally reinforced, as many of the fades in the film are not fades to black, but to blood red.
A simple, unobtrusive rustic acoustic score also punctuates scenes of harmony and violence, and the interplay between how the music works with each is intriguing.
Also look for a small role by Robert Englund, who seems to be in every genre film these days. Talk about a major career renaissance...kind of.
The film also appealed to me on a personal level - just when I was ready to give in, I heard Ludlow claim something to the effect of "never stop fighting, because the second you do, that's when the world rolls right over on you". I realized then and there that my daily battles with double wide strollers, farting/barking dogs, screaming minitards, and spaced out parents whose surface zen belies the tortorous innerquisiting "why, oh why didn't he pull out early?" - all within the confines of a video store, mind you - are not in vain...never, ever let the spark die.
Red is a small film, one that many will undoubtedly pass over in favour of bigger, more recognizable titles. Those that do skip Red, though, will be doing themselves a disservice. What we have here is an intelligent film that is both thought-provoking and a demands a visceral response in the viewer. Red is not a masterpiece, nor is it without flaw; but while it likely won't make many "Best of 2008" lists, it is, in my eyes, a minor gem that should not be missed.