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SXSW '12 Review: 'The Aggression Scale' Is Like 'Home Alone' With More Death (But Not As Fun As That Sounds)

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by Alison Willmore
March 11, 2012 4:33 PM
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The Aggression Scale

"The Aggression Scale" is like "Home Alone" with more death. If only it were as good a time as that description might lead you to believe. Directed by Steven C. Miller, who last made the Syfy Original "Scream of the Banshee," the movie is a schlocky pleasure when it finally gets around to delivering on its premise of a dysfunctional teen with violent tendencies taking on a group of thugs. But the build to that point is long, overly serious and reliant on actors and dialogue that aren't up to holding the screen through extended periods of talking or layering on of atmosphere. Character development is a quality of which genre films are often seriously in need, but it feels more like filler when your characters make no sense to begin with and most of them are just slaughter fodder.

Dana Ashbrook plays Lloyd, the top enforcer for Mr. Bellavance (Ray Wise, making for a mini "Twin Peaks" reunion). Bellavance is out on bail for murder and looking to skip town with his son, once he finds the $500,000 that was stolen from him. (One presumes the amount of carnage and betrayal taking place over what's not that much money is a testament to the only just recovering economy.) He gives Lloyd and his team of toughs 48 hours to track down and kill everyone who might have taken the cash in order to retrieve it -- "Loud and messy, Lloyd, loud and messy!" -- with the promise in return that he'll be able to take Bellavance's place as the head of whatever criminal operations they’re involved in.

Meanwhile, the recently married Bill (Boyd Kestner) and Maggie (Lisa Rotondi) have just moved to the countryside where they hope their newly blended family, including Maggie's sulky teenage cutter daughter Lauren (Fabianne Therese) and Bill's non-speaking and seemingly mentally disabled son Owen (Ryan Hartwig), will emulsify. Lauren is on the verge of running away and Owen spends his days making makeshift weapons out of objects lying around the house, so they're not quite the Brady bunch. And then finally, finally, Lloyd finds his way to their doorstep and carnage ensues.

"The Aggression Scale" was made on a low budget and in a hurry, and feels ragged and careless in strange ways -- in one scene, Lauren runs from the thugs into her room and, for reasons that are unclear, ends up putting her hand through a window and seriously hurting herself. (In the Q&A, the filmmakers explained that the actress has actually had that accident on set and they decided to (or had to) incorporate it into the movie.) Maggie, for reasons that are never explained, has her arm in a sling. The toughs magically track the teens to a car dealership seemingly only because they know that having a showdown between the cars will look cool. The film compensates for this with intrusive injections of style, like a grayish wash to the color and hyperactive, always-in-motion camerawork broken up by edits that always seem to come a second too soon.

But despite all of this, Owen's a delightfully ludicrous character, with a head of blond curls, a quizzical expression and a taste for brutality. Lloyd turns up a medical report that warns that Owen tests a 99.5 out of 100 on the aggression scale used by psychologists to measure violent behavior, and that he put a bunch of bullies in the hospital before being locked up himself. Being a psychopath doesn't necessarily mean you also have superpowers, but "The Aggression Scale" makes Owen into a larger-than-life B-movie antihero who MacGyvers up traps using blades from box cutters and tree limbs and cauterizes his own wounds. A sequence involving nails on stairs is actually pure, amped-up Kevin McCallister, though that might reflect more on how far "Home Alone" went with the pratfalls than on how disturbing "The Aggression Scale" manages to be. The film would have done better to cut out the female characters it doesn't know how to write or what to do with (Lauren is particularly bad; a whimpering, weeping rescue dolly), overtly embracing its over-the-topness and giving Owen more time in the spotlight as a bad seed turned badass pint-sized action star. [C]

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