A scene of tranquil beauty and everyday leisure turns unsettlingly violent at the start of director Trygve Allister Diesen's engaging pulp drama "Red." Avery Allan Ludlow (Brian Cox) is a widower living alone in a rural Oregon town. A regular fishing trip becomes a crime scene after a group of teens rob Ludlow and shoot his beloved dog Red. The boys get away with the crime but Ludlow wants justice and it's not long before everything spins out of control. "Red," premiering in the Spectrum section of the Sundance Film Festival, is pure pulp fiction; a revenge tale, but one of dramatic substance and cinematic polish.
Good pulp requires a larger-than-life hero, somebody of stature, and "Red" has that with Brian Cox. Once the opening violence occurs, Diesen and screenwriter Stephen Susco sidestep revenge tale cliches with a slow, steady boil as Ludlow searches and finds the teens responsible for the crime. The bloody bang at the film's start is powerful but it doesn't compare to Cox's furnace of emotions. Seldom does an actor fill the screen with such power and claim a film as his own. Kim Dickens brings some welcome warmth to "Red" as a pretty TV reporter who takes up Ludlow's cause. Tom Sizemore is perfectly thuggish as the unconcerned father of one of the accused boys. Amanda Plummer and Robert Englund make the most of their brief scenes as the impoverished parents of a boy accomplice who refuses to speak with police.
Everyone is rock solid but Diesen lets Cox remain in the spotlight from start to finish. It's arguably his best decision as a filmmaker. Cox is more familiar for his supporting roles in Hollywood features "The Bourne Supremacy" and "X2" but "Red" is a return to the showcase role from his 2001 Sundance drama "L.I.E." Cox looks the part of Ludlow with bushy gray mustache and shuffling walk. He's soft-spoken and it's this quiet anger that keeps "Red" from ever going over-the-top. It's a performance that owes more to Henry Fonda and John Wayne than Charles Bronson. In the film's standout scene, far more powerful than the film's opening crime sequence, Ludlow tells the young reporter exactly how his wife and son died in a family crime years before. The scene reveals Ludlow as damaged goods and perhaps, explains why he's unable to stop his demands for justice for his dog at any cost. Despite Ludlow's good intentions, acts of vandalism occur and there are additional deaths. The lines between right and wrong begin to blur Throughout it all, Cox shows Ludlow to be cool, committed and dedicated to his goal of justice. In a violent finale, a perfect finish for all that has occurred to Ludlow, his journey takes on more tragic proportions. Ludlow has accomplished much. Yet, in Cox's piercing gaze and in the hesitations of his words, one understands that perhaps the old man has also failed.
A sentimental coda after "Red's" satisfying finale seems out of place. It feels like a fuzzy afterthought, a chance for audiences to decompress and see Ludlow in a better light. I don't remember Raymond Chandler stories ending in such a sentimental manner and I do wish Diesen would have stayed true to his pulp instincts and allow "Red" a grim finale. Still, Cox makes "Red" a journey worth taking despite the closing stumble.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.