Austin, Texas, has gained a reputation as a cultural bellwether. Home to the trend-setting South by Southwest music, film, and interactive festival and the long-running PBS concert series Austin City Limits, the city also serves as the setting for films by Richard Linklater that capture the spirit of a decade (Dazed and Confused), or the essence of a lifestyle (Slacker). Since writer-producer-director Simon Rumley has set and filmed his latest feature, Red, White, and Blue, in Austin, we might ask what trend it heralds.
Perhaps a hybrid, independent genre: the slacker-slasher, a grindhouse-arthouse amalgam that explores disaffected and troubled characters while it flirts with torture porn and just plain old porn. An emphasis on character distinguishes Red,White, and Blue from plot- and gore-driven horror, but scenes of violence and sex almost make the film too explicit even for its IFC Midnight market niche.
Erica (Amanda Fuller) works a dead-end job by day and cruises bars by night. She adheres to just two rules: never sleep with the same man twice, and never fall in love. She meets Nate (Noah Taylor) an Iraq War vet with a sadistic streak, and despite the fact that Erica doesn’t “do friends”, she and Nate form a relationship. When one of Erica’s conquests—garage-band guitarist Franki (Marc Senter)—tracks her down with a troubling revelation, the trio descend into a spiral of jealousy and revenge with brutal and tragic consequences.
Nate and Erica both work at a DIY supply store, an appropriate setting given that all the characters in Red, White, and Blue are works in progress, subjects of their bungled attempts at self-fashioning. Taylor and Fuller bring depth to Nate and Erica; despite their flaws and antisocial tendencies, you’re pulling for them to make a meaningful connection. Fuller’s Erica is both harsh and vulnerable, while Taylor turns into affecting dialog what could have played as stilted speech if uttered by a lesser talent. Senter is by far the weakest of the three leads, and it shows, especially in a pivotal confrontation scene between Erica and Franki.
The film’s opening is particularly powerful. Lurid green and red light bathes Erica as she enters the Horseshoe Lounge, and that palette—along with the repetitive, dissonant piano that provides the only sound for the first few minutes of the film—foreshadow danger to come. Objects associated with good or bad luck—the emblem of the lounge, the eight ball on a pool table—become suffused with the immutability of fate as Erica meets, then leaves the bar with a threesome of guys. The beginning of their group sex session closes out the sequence.
Rumley also uses the opening to introduce the signature editing technique employed throughout the film. The final shot in one scene is placed after the first shot from the following scene, with sound from the following scene playing during both shots to bridge the scenes. In interviews the director has said he borrowed the technique from Sam Peckinpah and Steven Soderbergh. In Red, White, and Blue its use serves to link scene to scene like links in a chain, emphasizing Erica’s impatient wandering from one meaningless encounter to another, but also the inevitability of the film’s conclusion.
Does this slacker-slasher work? There’s nothing gratuitous about the sex or violence in Red, White, and Blue. In fact, upon a second viewing the film seems much less graphic than you remember. The camera cuts away just when scenes could become exploitive; it’s the tension and the import of the scenes that linger. At its best, the film’s graphic content deepens characterization, but at times Red, White, and Blue tilts toward stereotype and lampoon. And there’s way, way too much electrical tape.
In a cultural moment that valorizes depictions of brutality and sexuality, graphic scenes can fatigue viewers through repetition and ultimately undercut the message that filmmakers want them to carry. Darren Aronofsky is a cautionary case study in this regard. In Requiem for a Dream, his exploration of the consequences of addiction, Aronofsky pushes characters’ abjection to a point where you stop seeing them as human and instead as markers in a grand filmmaker’s statement. Red, White, and Blue comes close to the same collapse, but stops just short. The result is a film that’s flawed, like all of its characters, but that makes a stubbornly lasting impression.
Extras include a blooper reel and a making-of featurette.