All The “Rage”?

Posted: March 14, 2012 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Are you having a rough day? Well, stop complaining, because Dennis Twist (Rick Crawford), the lead character in Portland-based indie auteur Christopher R. Witherspoon’s 2010 debut  shot-on-HD feature Rage is having a much, much worse one.

Dennis is a bit of a douchebag, and in addition to having a rather annoyingly disappearing-and-reappearing Scots (I think, maybe it’s Irish) accent, he’s been stepping out on his old lady, Crystal (Audrey Walker) with the admittedly-fetching-but-not-worth-risking-your-marriage-over Dana (Anna Lodej).  Still, today he woke up determined to do the right thing — he drove downtown, accidentally stole the parking spot of a guy dressed entirely in black riding a motorcycle, met up with his paramour, and called it quits, telling her that he still loved his wife. As well he should since, as we find out in a frankly atrociously scripted info-dump scene a bit later that takes the form of a conversation between Dennis and his best buddy who also happens to be his therapist, the Mrs. is basically supporting his ass while his once-promising-looking writing career slowly stalls out. Dana takes things pretty hard at first, but seems to come around rather quickly — perhaps too quickly — and Dennis is soon off to have that info-dump conversation and then head home and start treating his gal Crytal like the saint she quite obviously is.

Needless to say, things don’t quite go as expected, though, or else we wouldn’t have much of a movie here. That pissed-off biker (played by writer/director/videographer/editor Witherspoon himself), his face obscured underneath his black-tinted helmet, soon starts mercilessly harassing Dennis. It starts slowly enough, with tailing him at close range, slashing his car exterior with a rather imposing-looking knife, pulling up next to him at stop light and revving the engine — all the usual shit you might do to somebody for whom you’ve developed an instant and intense dislike  (or maybe that’s just me). Things quickly escalate, though, to the point where Dennis finds his fuel line’s been fucked with while he was inside eating. Then the biker beats the shit out of him. Then he follows him home and parks on his lawn. Then he breaks into his house. Then he beats the crap out of him again. Then he forces him to watch while he rapes his wife.

And then, of course, our brutalized-yet-still-intrepid couple manage to turn the tables on Mr. Asshole Motorcyclist and kill him. Roll Credits. Admittedly, the story itself here is a pretty straightforward re-hashing of Steven Spielberg’s classic Duel (a debt which Witherspoon pays homage to by having a couple of characters waiting around in the mechanic’s shop Dennis has brought his car into discussing the film) albeit on a much more intimate scale, and with a lot more bite (things really take a turn for the unexpectedly gory and frankly sadistic towards the end), but Witherspoon generally makes it all work — he utilizes inventive camera angles, his rapid-fire editing is confident and assured (and delivers a few genuine jump-out-of-your-seat moments), and he gets pretty solid performances out of an admittedly amateur cast. Overall, the high quality of the production values on display here are enough to convince you that this thing must have cost a lot more than its IMDB-reported $100,000 budget to make. And yet —

On some levels, there’s still no mistaking that this is pretty much a DIY effort (not that we consider that a bad  thing around these parts, quite the contrary). The most notable less-than-polished element in Rage is, unfortunately, the script itself. As mentioned previously, some of the dialogue is straight out of the “thank you for tuning into K-PLOT radio” school of scriptwriting, and while that can certainly be forgiven, the overall structure of the story itself is a bit more problematic and, for some, might even come across as being offensive. Early on Dennis comes to the conclusion that the guy on the bike must be Dana’s ex-con ex-boyfriend, who’s either taken to harassing him merely because he doesn’t like the fact that he’s been shagging his girl, or perhaps because she put him up to it as revenge for dumping her over her lunch break (never a classy move). Of course, the fact that we can never actually see the guy’s face is supposed to make we, the armchair geniuses in the audience, suspect that it’s probably someone else altogether, the problem is that there are really no good “red herring” candidates in the cast. As the biker’s attacks become far more personal and life-threatening, we’re naturally led to believe that this is somebody who hates Dennis’ guts for very deeply-held reasons, but without  any suitable characters to fill that role apart from Dana or Crystal themselves (and as the biker is quite clearly male, they’re out of the running), the whole “who the fuck is this” pseudo-mystery falls a bit flat.

Where things really gt questionable, though, is at the end — when the biker is raping Crystal, Dennis begs and pleads for him to leave her alone, as any right-thinking guy would. He also gushes about how sorry he is that he messed around with Dana, thinking of course that the biker just has to be her ex. Fair enough. ‘Bout time he developed a conscience. Yet when Dennis gets a call on his cell-phone, after their intruder has been — uhhhmmm — dispatched, informing him in no uncertain terms that it’s not her unnamed former lover because that guy violated his parole and is back in the slammer, this is treated as the film’s major “shock revelation.” Sure, it’s bad when some random psycho who, as it turns out, doesn’t know you at all and is just ruining you and your wife’s lives because you stole his parking space (and truthfully the film’s title telegraphs this “surprise” from the outset, since “rage” denotes  more a sort of random psychosis than a well-thought-out revenge scheme perpetrated by somebody with, at least in their own mind, a good reason to hate you — in that case the flick would probably be called Revenge) brutally rapes the woman who has devoted her entire life to your sorry, two-timing ass, but when you confess you’ve been having an affair to her when, as it turns out, you really never needed to do so — well, that’s apparently when your goose is well and truly cooked, it seems.

Look, I know story structure is a tough thing for first-time filmmakers, and I want to be clear that on the whole I think Rage is a well-thought-out, well-executed effort. I applaud Witherspoon’s obvious, and numerous, technical abilities. But any ending that asks us to have some degree of sympathy for a guy who, as he comes to see it, unnecessarily reveals he’s been having a fling to his wife after she’s the one who’s been raped, fer chrissakes, is one that maybe could use, dare I say it, a little bit of sensitivity training or something.  I know we suffer from an over-abundance of the, shall we say, phallocentric, viewpoint in the cinematic world, especially in the horror/thriller genre,  but this takes “telling things from the guy’s perspective” to a whole new (and, in Witherspoon’s defense, quite likely unintentionally, as this strikes me more as a byproduct of screenwriting amateurism rather than any purposeful misogyny on his part ) tasteless extreme.

 Still, on the whole, that admittedly major quibble (and, okay, a few minor ones) aside, Rage  is definitely a movie that shows a more-than-likely-quite-promising young talent honing his skills right before our very eyes.  It’s tense, at times surprising, capably acted, gorgeously shot, and a lot more professional than it probably has any right to be. It’s available now on DVD from Witherspoon himself, who’s doing a crackerjack job of promoting it all over the internet, and definitely deserves to be seen by all fans of truly independent, low-budget cinema. Find out more about it at http://ragethemovie.net, you’ll be glad you did.

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