A mournful tale of compassion in a cold climate, The Slaughter Rule is set in a bumfuck town on the endless Montana plains, where whiskey brawls are both a pastime and a heat source. The high point of the dramatic competition at Sundance 2002, this debut feature by writer-director twins Alex and Andrew Smith (also selected for last spring’s New Directors/New Films) evokes the shambling melancholy and burnished grunge of early ’70s American cinema—which may explain why it left Park City’s next-big-thing moshpit with neither award nor distribution deal. Belatedly sneaking into a single New York theater thanks to the rescue efforts of Cowboy Releasing, the film is also currently airing on the Sundance Channel, though the fog-breath chill-o-rama effect and magisterial Scope photography (by erstwhile Gus Van Sant collaborator Eric Edwards) warrant a big-screen viewing.
The story is archetypal rites of passage: On the football field one day, teenage Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling) finds out that his estranged father has been hit by a train—walked in front of it, insists his brittle, permanently aggrieved mother (Kelly Lynch). Soon thereafter, he’s cut from the high school team: “Ain’t got room for ‘ain’t angry enough,’ ” Roy’s coach tells him, apparently misreading the kid’s steely squint as a sign of inner composure. Gideon Ferguson (David Morse), a garrulous newspaper vendor and sometime barroom crooner who coaches a rogue six-man squad called the Renegades, elbows his way into Roy’s life, sweet-talking him into being quarterback. Mentor and protégé temporarily fill mutual voids, but Gid’s ferocious attachment (which intensifies as details of his mysterious past are slowly illuminated) stirs up new anxieties in the younger man.
Suffused with the cruel, crisp beauty of winter light, and accompanied by No Depression ballads and a Jay Farrar score rich in strum, twang, and drone (the soundtrack is out on Bloodshot next month),The Slaughter Rule derives its metaphoric density from the brutality and intimacy of contact sport. There’s enough alpha male conflict here to sustain a few Scorsese-Schrader war cries, but the Smiths also display a facility with emotional awkwardness and a knack for balance—matching grand themes with grander settings, or sanding them down to a fine realist grain. The Slaughter Rule stages a clash of outsized (and often repressed) passions against a mythopoeic backdrop of infinite flatlands, but it’s rooted in credibly detailed psychology and sociology: the ritualistic bonds and oedipal frictions between sons and father figures, the ruinous toll of violence as a way of life, in particular the coiled rage native to small-town stasis.
Sensitive to the homophobic safeguards that confound physical proximity between men, The Slaughter Rule is as much of a testosterone-bathed tone poem as Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. Roy enjoys a fleeting affair with slightly older, much wiser bartender Skyla (Clea DuVall), but the film unsurprisingly homes in on the male friendships—between Roy and his best buddy, Tracy Two Dogs (Eddie Spears), a Blackfoot Indian with a monstrous stepfather, and mostly, between Roy and Gid. The lead performances could hardly be better: Gosling, having stolen and propped up entire movies last year (Murder by Numbers and The Believer), crackles with the economical intensity of a young Tim Roth. Morse, who has racked up decades worth of idiosyncratic character parts, is monumental in this career-peak turn, bypassing pathetic-closetdom clichés for a portrait of impacted masculinity—a broken man concealing the open sores of regret, defeat, and fear behind a mask of brute willpower.