Unsettling ‘Red White & Blue’ Creeps Under the Skin
CHICAGO – “Red White & Blue” is a deviously effective horror film precisely because it doesn’t appear to be one. There are subtle stylistic hints here and there, but nothing that truly signals the horrors to come. They emerge not from left field, but out of the characters’ own pent up rage, and their increasing desire to inflict pain upon the world that has failed them.
It’s sort of refreshing to see a film that shocks the senses, particularly at a time when most moviegoers have become desensitized to even the most extreme acts of violence. Many potentially disturbing pictures are layered in enough camp to make the audience feel safely detached from the material. “The Human Centipede” has a spectacularly unsettling premise, but its execution was broad and more than a little silly. For midnight movie junkies, the film may be categorized as “fun.” There is nothing fun about the final act of “Red White & Blue,” which delves into depravity worthy of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”
The film is divided into three parts, each centering on a character who is simultaneously a victim and a predator. Erica (Amanda Fuller) is a nymphomaniac with deep emotional scars. She spends her aimless days seducing men into bed before promptly disappearing from their lives. Her behavior is not far removed from that of a prostitute, but Erica is not motivated by money. She sleeps with guys whom she doesn’t respect, which may explain why she refuses to bed Nate (Noah Taylor), an Iraq war vet whose gaunt face and wide, haunted eyes have a knack for conveying the unspeakable. There’s something creepy about Nate right from the get-go, but Erica gradually befriends him, attracted to his shy demeanor. Fuller is very touching in these scenes, nailing the desperation and repressed yearning of a woman inching toward what may be the first meaningful connection in her life. The actress is so magnetic that the film suffers whenever she’s offscreen.
Amanda Fuller and Noah Taylor star in Simon Rumley’s Red White and Blue.
Photo credit: IFC Films
About a third of the way through “Blue,” a funny thing happens. Rumley jarringly cuts to a subplot that initially appears to be disconnected from the central action. As Nate and Erica’s relationship is on the brink of blossoming, the picture suddenly abandons the couple in favor of following Franki (Marc Senter), a young man who previously “shared” Erica with a couple of his bandmates. Franki’s life is also looking up. His struggling band just sealed a deal for a European tour, while his ailing mother’s cancer has gone into remission. This is not the first time Rumley has explored a mother/son relationship marred by terminal illness. Fans of the director’s work will be reminded of his even wilder 2006 thriller, “The Living and the Dead.”
Once Franki appears to have it all, he receives a devastating bit of news that swiftly sets off the dominoes of destruction. To say anything further would be to ruin the film’s carefully calibrated tension and assortment of plot twists. It takes more than a leap of faith to buy much of what happens in the last half-hour, as fairly grounded characters morph into vengeful monsters. Since all of the main characters are reprehensible in one way or another, it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for them as their lives fall apart in operatic fashion. And yet, Rumley maintains his visceral grip on viewers the entire way through. The opening sequences of the film are graced with very little dialogue, as Milton Kam’s cinematography forms a tender duet with Richard Chester’s subtly brooding score.
There are times when the film’s suspense borders on aggravation, as Rumley (along with his expert editor Robert Hall) seems resigned to beat around the bush, teasing the audience with plot details without revealing how they connect. Parts of scenes will be left conspicuously missing, leaving a blank space in the story that won’t be filled in until later. Here’s a typical sequence in the film: a kid falls off his bike. The film abruptly jumps ahead before his cries can be heard, cutting to a shot of Erica carrying the boy home. Yet his cries echo over the footage, until the film cuts back to a shot of the boy writhing in agony. Though this may seem like a throwaway moment, it is a poignant illustration of the film’s tricky narrative structure, which pays off dramatically at the end.
Simon Rumley’s Red White and Blue is available on demand via Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner, Bright House and Cox.
Photo credit: IFC Films
Though Fuller certainly deserves the bulk of the film’s acting honors, the performance guaranteed to remain etched in the imaginations of moviegoers, particularly as they head off to bed, will be that of Taylor, in what is obviously a showcase role. Taylor is a wonderful character actor, and his work here is fittingly fierce and horrific, but the character never emerges as anything more than a two-dimensional sketch. At least Erica and Franki have the complexity necessary to make their suffering resonate on a human level.
Nate is the engine behind the film’s unforgettably gruesome climax, which contains some of the most galvanizing acts of violence in recent cinematic memory. The violence is uncompromisingly grisly and psychologically brutal. There’s a home invasion involving the torture of a young girl that is guaranteed to send many audience members staggering for the exits. Yet the film never quite crosses the line into exploitation, primarily because Rumley shifts focus away from the blood and guts, playing on the mind rather than the gag reflex.
Does “Red White & Blue” ultimately go over the top? Perhaps. Is it flawed and occasionally clichéd? Yes. Will it still scare the pants off you? Most definitely. Rumley is among a mere handful of contemporary filmmakers who truly possess the power to shock an audience into a state of dazed, frightened awe (mixed with a healthy dose of disgust). He’s a provocateur in the best sense of the word, and his boldness is exciting to say the least. I can’t wait to see what he does next.