Smith Brothers Team Up for Sturdy "Slaughter Rule"
by Patrick Z. McGavin
(indieWIRE/01.18.02) -- "The Slaughter Rule" is an engrossing, frequently brilliant first feature by twin brothers Andrew and Alex Smith. Here is the galvanizing corrective to a festival awash in miniature, depressingly ugly video works, a movie that reaches deep and wide to say something vital about the construction of masculinity, the quest for independence, and the nature of autonomy.
The movie has some awkward passages, runs a little long, and contains an occasionally unstable story, but the scope of the brothers' imagination and their superb characterizations yield some deeply impressive revelations. Attempting a work both dense and allusive, the Smiths have taken a subcultural subject -- the sport of six-man football -- and crafted a story of immediacy and depth, thwarted ambition and recurring failure.
Shot by the estimable Eric Edwards ("My Own Private Idaho") in a rare two-strip widescreen Cinemascope format, "The Slaughter Rule" has an extraordinary physical texture and vivid sense of place. From the opening shot of the infinite, deeply lined horizontal Montana space, the Smiths conjure up a brutal, unyielding landscape akin to Andrew Wyeth. Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling), a 17-year-old kid, anguished, passive, and avid for experience, is unsettled by the death of his estranged father and his failure to make his high school football team. His mother (Kelly Lynch) is a spectral presence, frequently absent and detached. His only friend is Tracy Two Dogs (Eddie Spears), a Blackfoot Indian disfigured by his own bouts of violence and emotional hardship.
In a performance of astonishing range, nuance and complexity, David Morse is the movie's most enigmatic and compelling figure, a lonely and forlorn man named Gideon Ferguson who recruits Roy to play for his six-man football team, the Renegades. This variation of the sport, where players play multiple positions, on offense and defense, marks the beginning of Roy's self-actualization. As rendered by the filmmakers, the football games have a poetic, searing beauty where ecstasy and pain intertwine, and the players' equipment inhibits their freedom and individuality. (The movie's title refers to the point in the game when a team with a 45-point lead is automatically declared the winner, regardless of how much time remains.)
Roy is quickly drawn into Gideon's sphere, a cautionary place marked by the absence of rules and order. He learns about Gideon's musical skills and his friendship with Studebaker (David Cale), a sad-eyed wanderer who lives in his abandoned car. More important, Roy enters a tentative relationship with Skyla (Clea Duvall), a bartender at the honky talk bar where Gideon and Studebaker perform. The configuration of these relationships, and their corresponding and alternate needs of connection, shapes the movie's vibrant emotional rhythms.
The movie's centerpiece is an absolutely devastating sequence inside Gideon's dank, bleak apartment. He and Roy examine an injury Roy suffered in a bar fight, which was set off by rumors about Gideon's sexual orientation and the exact nature of their friendship. The Smiths use the location brilliantly, literally confining and removing space to heighten the emotional intensity. Marked by rage and resignation, Gideon unburdens himself of his past, alluding to the death of one of his former players. Roy is wholly unprepared to deal with the intensity and complexity of Gideon's revelations. The filmmakers keep the camera close to the actors' bodies, and the two undergo a dance of advances and retreats; the elusiveness of Gideon's personal motivations and sexual ambivalence turns the scene into something electrifying and deeply uneasy.
The sexual hysteria and thwarted masculinity not only significantly alters the social and personal dynamics of the film, but changes the breadth of the Smiths' concerns, extending into themes of friendship, loyalty, bravery and ultimately, sacrifice. Morse is fantastic, projecting so many complicated feelings and expressions that it becomes essential to reconsider the character of Gideon from moment to moment. Gosling is equally impressive; the uncertainty of his body expressions capture something immediate and tangible.
At times, "The Slaughter Rule" is almost too much, as if the Smiths have inscribed every feeling, emotion and experience they have ever thought about into their first film. Still, the movie is both physically handsome and emotionally complex. It's a resonant film that dares to address something mysterious about American culture: the nature of valor.
[Editor's note: indieWIRE originally published this review in January 2002 as part of our Sundance coverage.]