The Slaughter Rule (2002)
Only Pigskin Deep
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
The Slaughter Rule may be the first movie to combine football and homosexuality as its two main subjects, but neither potential audience will find much to cheer about here.
This former Sundance contender is a timid template of an indie movie that glides through all the proper turns, sticks up all the appropriate signposts, and never once takes a demanding or truthful step.
But The Slaughter Rule has something else going for it: David Morse. Most audiences won't recognize the name, though they probably know the face. Recently seen in Hearts in Atlantis, Dancer in the Dark and Proof of Life, Morse is one of those reliable character actors, not unlike John C. Reilly, who stabilizes a movie but never gets credit for it.
Here he finally gets a role to sink his teeth into. He plays Gideon Ferguson, a grizzled football coach and newspaper deliveryman who can barely pay his rent and doesn't have his own car.
It's winter in Montana. The local high school has cut junior varsity from the sports program, leaving several young athletes with no place to play.
That's good news for Gideon, who longs to start his own independent six-man football team, a much tougher, more rugged team that plays in deserted fields with no high school fanfare or frills.
Ace quarterback Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling) is among those cut from the high school squad, apparently for not being "hard" enough. Gideon recruits him, putting the finishing touch on his new team.
Gosling last appeared in Remember the Titans and The Believer; I missed him in both, so I'm no expert. But here he seems miscast -- he has a weird, toothy smirk that pops up on his face in just about every scene, even at the most inappropriate moments. He was far more acceptable as a contemptible teen psychopath in last year's Murder By Numbers.
Roy's father has just died, and Gideon turns out to be an acceptable father substitute. Until Roy realizes that Gideon may be gay. It seems that Gideon hangs out a little too much with a local drunk (David Cale), nicknamed Studebaker because he sleeps in one.
The rest of the movie has Gideon and Roy fighting and arguing a lot, never really coming to much of a conclusion until the filmmakers decide that it's time to end the movie. Then Roy walks into the sunset with a happy look on his face, as if everything were suddenly settled.
At the film's climax, the filmmakers have Roy going crazy, screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs, but not saying much. It's as if they decided they needed a screaming fit at that point in the story, even if they couldn't figure out why.
Twins Andrew and Alex Smith wrote and directed the movie. The one thing besides casting Morse that they get right is a feel for small town Montana. They capture the freezing cold and the general lost, trapped sense one might have if one didn't spend a lot of time playing and thinking about football.
There's an obligatory girl in the story, too. Clea DuVall plays Skyla, a severe blonde who passes time by working in a bar. She hooks up with Roy for a while, then tells him that he needs to grow up and leaves town. Apparently she's the only one smart enough to do so.
On paper, this might sound like a perfectly reasonable story. But on film, the Smith brothers don't know what to say or how to say it. You have to wonder why they're bothering to make a film that's so darn middling.
On the field, the football players smash into each other with real force, but the camera looks at them as if glazed over, its real attention somewhere else. (Perhaps on attending the Sundance film festival.) This is supposed to be a hardcore, underground-type league, but the few football scenes are presented in a series of limp, unconnected montages -- a caught pass, a missed pass, a touchdown. We get the sense that the filmmakers couldn't care less about the sport.
(If you're looking for a good football movie, rent M*A*S*H or The Longest Yard.)
It's always far more frustrating to watch a movie that wastes the seeds of a good movie than watching a movie that's bad from the start. The Slaughter Rule is a movie that wants to be brutal, but it pulls every punch.