SXSW 2012: THE AGGRESSION SCALE Review

     March 11, 2012

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If the folks behind Funny or Die did an R-rated spoof of Home Alone, their parody would most likely bear a passing resemblance to Steven C. Miller‘s The Aggression Scale.  The home-invasion thriller isn’t owned by Chris Columbus’ 1990 family comedy, but when you make a blond pre-teen kid the defender of the home, the comparison is inevitable.  While a darker Home Alone with R-rated violence may seem like a promising prospect, The Aggression Scale seems stuck at “insane badass kid dishes out bloody vengeance.”  Although Miller opens his movie with a bravura opening sequence and manages to hold on to some semblance of tension, the thrills die down by giving Superboy all the power.

“I want it loud and messy, Lloyd!” angry mobster Bellavance (Ray Wise) yells to his crony (Dana Ashbrook).  Bellavance is out on bail after being accused of murder, and he needs to flee the country with his money.  However, one of his former employees has taken his cash, and so Bellavance sends out a hit squad (Derek Mears, Jacob Reynolds, Joseph McKelheer) led by Lloyd to take out anyone who might have the mobster’s money.  Even if they don’t have the money, the gang is tasked with murdering every suspect so as to “send a message.”  Eventually they come to newlywed couple Bill (Boyd Kestner) and Maggie (Lisa Rotondi), Maggie’s sullen teenage daughter Lauren (Fabianne Therese), and Bill’s mute and clearly disturbed pre-adolescent son Owen (Ryan Hartwig).  Owen takes it upon himself to dispatch Bellavance’s goons, and the audience takes it upon themselves to enjoy bloodlust.

An unstoppable anti-hero taking down unambiguously bad guys in an R-rated setting is almost always done to indulge bloodlust.  We feel no remorse for those who have slaughtered the innocent, and we certainly don’t feel it when the protagonist’s actions are done in self-defense.  Miller does an excellent job of setting up Lloyd as a sadist who enjoys killing anytime, anyplace, anywhere, and who clearly deserves whatever violence will be visited upon him.  The intro sucks in the audience by opening with the definition of the “Aggression Scale” (a test to measure one’s proclivity towards violence), the low hum of the soundtrack, Lloyd’s toothy and psychotic smile, Ray Wise bringing the patented Ray Wise-menace, and then cutting to loud, angry, energetic opening titles.  We then move to meeting the family, and our curiosity is piqued by the silent, clearly disturbed Owen.  The elements are in place for an exciting collision course.

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But the collision turns out to be more of a fender-bender.  The movie takes a little too long setting up the family dynamic, in particular Lauren’s character.  Miller wants to keep Owen mysterious, and since Lauren will be his emotional anchor, we need to spend time with her and her emotional baggage.  However, her problems seem far too normal in a movie with a hit squad versus My Little Punisher.  The impact is further diminished when we see the attackers bust in, but then cut to Owen wearing all-black clothes, and double-lacing up his combat boots.  We know where the power lies, and it’s not with the contract killers.  With so few characters and a clear indication of who’s going to be taking the hurt, there’s not much drama.  The audience simply waits to see how Owen will take out the people trying to kill him and his family.

The Home Alone comparison comes into play because Owen uses booby traps rather than take his enemies head-on.  The strategy makes sense, but there are some traps Owen could have easily spiced up from the Kevin McCallister Playbook.  The only difference Kevin and Owen is that Owen enjoys toying with his prey.  However, Miller lacks the stones to make the character go truly dark and force the audience reconsider its loyalties.  We’re not going to side with Bellanvance’s thugs, but Miller doesn’t want us to question a disturbed boy who doesn’t have any reservations about taking life.  We’re going to cheer for Owen’s violent traps, we’re going to be rooting for him and Lauren to protect each other, and there’s never any indication that the movie will do anything other than sate our desire for bloody mayhem.

The only change-up in The Aggression Scale is having the table set for an intense, violent thriller and ending up with a safe little predator-prey thriller.  That’s not terrible, and Hartwig has the intensity to keep us captivated, but the premise ultimately doesn’t offer anything beyond Home Alone other than realistic, bloody violence and swear words.  Because it never tries to do anything more with Owen beyond letting him be cool and intense, The Aggression Scale becomes nothing more than a moderately enjoyable gimmick rather than the exciting action-thriller it sets out to be.

Rating: C

For all of our SXSW 2012 coverage, click here.  Also, here are links to all of my SXSW reviews so far:

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