SXSW Movie Review: THE AGGRESSION SCALE
Steven C. Miller’s The Aggression Scale is a rough-edged little gem, a movie whose faults almost overwhelm it... but in the end the film’s energy and charm make up for it all. It’s a film whose premise is instantly excellent, and I think that with a bigger budget and some better casting The Aggression Scale could be a truly great film. Instead it’s a strong one that reinforces Miller as a talent to watch.
Someone has stolen money from a mob boss (the great Ray Wise), and he wants it back. He hands off a list of suspects to his number one henchman with a simple order: kill every person on this list until you get to the embezzler, get the money back and kill him too. Dana Ashbrook plays the henchman, bringing a wiry psychotic energy (and a Twin Peaks reunion with Price) as he shotguns people to death and takes Polaroids to prove the hit.
Meanwhile, a new family moves into a new home. Bill and Maggie are newlyweds trying to get their kids to accept the new family dynamic. Lauren is vocally hating every minute of her new life, but young Owen keeps silent. Totally silent. Recently sprung from a juvie mental hospital, Owen has some issues, including a penchant for spectacular violence.
That comes in handy when Ashbrook’s posse stages a home invasion, killing the parents and sending the kids fleeing into the woods. Like a totally badass, utterly psychotic Kevin McAllister from Home Alone, Owen begins setting up traps to destroy the pursuing baddies.
The Aggression Scale is a scrappy movie, which already made me like it, but it was at this point that I really got into what Miller and screenwriter Ben Powell were doing. The movie’s tone begins to subtly shift, and what began as a hard-edged crime film slowly morphs into a fun, violent action film designed to raise cheers from the audience. The film’s secret weapon in this regard is Derek Mears, who you’ll know as Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th remake. Mears plays one of the goons, and his increasingly comical reactions to the carnage dished out by Owen helps us ride the tone change smoothly.
To be honest I had to work to like The Aggression Scale at times. Much of the acting is simply bad, with Fabianne Therese being almost completely intolerable as the whiny, screechy Lauren. Some of the family set-up is tough to get through as well, with the best actor in the bunch - young Ryan Hartwig as Owen - being completely silent the whole time. But the movie rewards patience.
Owen is a wonderfully fun character, a troubled young man who obviously spends all of his time blankly planning mayhem. He’s preternaturally quick-witted and always one step ahead of everyone else in the film. He’s not a character who fits easily into a 'reality-based' story, but once you look at him as Baby Batman you understand what a blast he is. It’s great watching as the kid snaps together disparate objects into traps and then effortlessly manipulates bad guys into them.
There’s a delightful tightness to the film’s script as well. There are small throwaway bits at the beginning of the film that pay off in spades at the end, and there are reveals in the movie that utterly change how you view the family without beating you over the head.
I also have to point out how much I enjoyed the film’s soundtrack, especially the driving score over the great opening titles. It’s something I’d totally buy on iTunes.
The Aggression Scale is a very low budget movie, and there’s no hiding that. It doesn’t have the slickness or the scale of a studio film, which is sort of too bad because the basic concept and script are totally worthy of a bigger budget version. But the movie as it exists is filled with energy and a deranged sense of fun, all fueled by Steven Miller’s undeniable visual eye and flair. I wish somebody would give this guy thirty million already so he could really start flexing his muscles. So be warned: if your idea of a low budget film is something that clocks in at fifty million you might find The Aggression Scale too grungy for your tastes. But if you love a punk rock aesthetic where ambition and heart are more important than slickness, The Aggression Scale is your kind of rock ‘n roll.