The Slaughter Rule

on January 08, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
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   First-time filmmakers (though not new to Sundance; they volunteered at the fest just a few short years ago) Alex and Andrew Smith have tackled a challenging, controversial subject matter--the sometimes undefinable relationships between men and the boys they mentor--and masked it in a slickly-produced, studio-like package.

   Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling) is cut from his rural Montana high school football team by a coach who tells him, "You ain't angry enough," shortly after his estranged father passes away. In need of a male role model, he is approached by an eccentric loner, Gideon (David Morse), who taps him to quarterback his six-man squad. Emboldened by the aggressive play--rules like "no roughing the passer" don't apply--Roy disregards the rumors swirling around Gideon and his enigmatic history with boys.

   In Gideon, the Smiths have written a character much more complex than "Is he or isn't he?". A critical scene in Gideon's apartment, in which horseplay with Roy culminates with a too-intimate embrace, only further complicates the question, as Gideon backs off, intimating that it was nothing more than a harmless hug. The scene goes on too long--or perhaps it just feels that way, given the awkwardness of the situation--but it is crucial to grasping the character. "I'm not a man who wants other men," Gideon says. "I just enjoy being around them. It's all I've ever known." Having never experienced real intimacy with women, Gideon's affection for the men and boys in his life borders on the romantic but never definitively crosses the line.

   Morse, usually saddled with earnest supporting parts, is a revelation in the role, his boundless, good-natured energy camouflaging the contradictions roiling beneath the surface. Gosling, who recently starred in the controversial "Believer," continues to prove his exciting, extraordinary talent, capturing the conflicting emotions of a young man who in one moment sympathizes with his misunderstood mentor, expressing genuine affection and concern, only to turn on him the next, screaming accusations and posturing with affected machismo. A boy who can woo an older woman with his sweet sincerity but also drive her away with his inherent immaturity. It's unfortunate that "The Slaughter Rule's" supporting characters, such as Roy's mother, his best friend and his sweetheart, aren't as finely drawn.

   But "The Slaughter Rule" doesn't look like the risky film that it is. Beautifully photographed by Eric Edwards and conscientiously designed by John Johnson, its color-saturated shots of the Montana weather and landscape and character-revealing sets evoke a maturity that belies the filmmakers' professional inexperience.    Starring Ryan Gosling, David Morse, Clea Duvall, Kelly Lynch, David Cale and Eddie Spears. Directed and written by Alex Smith and Andrew Smith. Produced by Michael Robinson and Greg O'Connor. No distributor set. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 112 min.

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