Bitterroot and Ponderosa Pine
In their screenplay for The Slaughter Rule, directors Andrew and Alex Smith return to their Montana roots, a place that's hard and hardscrabble, honky-tonk cowboy and cold -- even indoors in winter -- and lonely. But as though Natureís compensation, there is the high Big Sky, blue, or golden with sunset clouds, shadowing a horizon of buttes that recede and ring immense tablelands, "poems of geology."
As in Norman Macleanís summertime A River Runs Through It, also about fathers and sons, the land is a strong presence. Its ungodly backdrop dwarfs protagonists and forces people back into themselves -- and either to drink or to the warmth of rough limited contact with a very few others. Both films are beautiful in their stark ways, though some viewers might fail to respond to the deliberate pacing that fits the muted emotions of such isolated, stoic people.
Whereas Redfordís vision of the seventy-year-old academicís first novella uses cold-river fly fishing as a metaphor for life lessons, the brothers Smith turn instead to rural six-man football. Here, however, the sport is not the overdone Vince Lombardi inspiration trumpeted in an obnoxious Any Given Sunday or the predictable Disney feel-good of Remember the Titans. Rather, football is in its way incidental, for the present film really concerns love and trust, maturing into acceptance and responsibility. "It is impossible to live in this world without being committed," as Coach Gid (David Morse) puts it.
Raised by his sad, boyfriend-hopping mother (Kelly Lynch), Roy (Ryan Gosling) barely knows the father who long ago told him that hard men donít break: "I didnít know Mr. Chutney at all well," says Roy at the funeral; "Iím his son." His Blackfoot Indian best friend, Tracy Two Dogs (Eddy Spears), only saw his own father at football games, until he went for cigarettes and never came back; and coach Gideon was left in an orphanage by his loose-living mother. The camaraderie of football -- the overused "bonding" -- and its pure actions of hitting and being hit, should provide release and relief, but things are not so simple.
On the day Blue Springs High School cuts JV football and he is not listed for the Bison varsity, Roy learns that his father has died, possibly a suicide. Gideon Ferguson, who sells late-night newspapers and cares for drunk diabetic Floyd "Studebaker" (David Cale), solicits Roy to quarterback his barnstorming Renegades, and Tracy comes along, into the bargain. Between coach and player there develops a friendship in which the boy holds back a large part of himself, for open rumor brands the older man a sexual "prevert" -- Matthew Shepardís murder occurred just one state south -- and there are stories of another youngster, in another place, who died. As Roy hesitates, he also begins a second relationship, with Skyla (Clea Duvall), a slightly older barmaid. Unsure of himself, he does things by halves, and the yearning girl buys a bus ticket to leave, for she "thought you were someone else [and doesnít] like who youíre growing into."
There are no answers to everything -- will the future include Skyla? -- as both emotional and debilitating physical suffering must be borne. Only when Roy is able to act by committing himself to others, do we understand his growth and the significance of the opening sequence of a pleading-eyed deer, caught on barbed wire and dying. The adolescent becomes a man, perhaps a man like his father Nelson, but that is really only another beginning, for the world is not kind and what will come is wisely not spelled out. Like headlights on cars passing other cars and sparse farms on Heartland highways, the lamps that are human souls have crossed, and they may meet again, or they may not.
This movie, with its dialogue so real some is lost and must be inferred and its feel for lost little people and county-western towns, recalls The Last Picture Show. It reminds us of essential problems that confront everyone, whether in great cities or out there in the sticks. Perhaps its guiding insight is the alternative Texas name for the misleading title -- to ease pain, when one team is ahead by too much, the football game ends -- and that is the "Mercy Rule."
(Released by Cowboy Entertainment and rated "R" for language and sexual content.)