Just when you thought it was safe to piss off a biker....
Reviewing a truly independent work can be a tricky business. As a fan, you want to help the artist reach as large an audience as possible, yet as a critic, you have the duty, and the trust of your readership, to tell the whole truth, for good or ill.
For me, I tend to view low budget, indie films within the bounds of their limitations. I look for the good in them, and I give credence where its due. If they don't quite hit the mark, I usually point out the fact that these films were made under the most demanding of circumstances, while being more than ready to note that imagination, and skill, can overcome any hurdle. Many of these small, humble films have to be judged on their own terms, and within their own space. Not so, with Christopher Witherspoon's RAGE. This one needs no such support frame.
With RAGE, Witherspoon has crafted the sort of work that should, in a perfect world, have the studios shaking in their boots. A film that deftly transcends its budget, and its crews lack of experience, and knocks your teeth down your throat.
Taking the credo, long held in Horror high-regard, that simplicity is most often key to truly primal scares, Chris has locked his sights on a premise that's as streamlined and minimal as they come, and has added depth, nuance, and most importantly, a fucking truckload of suspense, thrills, and shocks.
RAGE takes the 'faceless stalker' trope and turns it on its head, creating a nameless, unknowable psychopath who preys in broad daylight, on bustling city streets, and on the roads. And it all works brilliantly. We have a genuinly frightening masked killer who's outfit is a black bikers suit, who sports a beautiful blue bike, and who will just as happily fuck up your day in a public toilet, as in an isolated space. In finding influence in the slasher sub-genres most celebrated tropes, Witherspoon has subverted the rules to suit his own wicked template. Yet this is so much more than a simple stalk-n-slash party.
RAGE practically screams 'cineaste at the wheel'. Our director here is clearly a huge fan of not only Horror Cinema, but all cinema. The influence of Carpenter permeates the movie, yet it jostles constantly with a finely tuned 'Hitchcockian' sense of suspense, and an ability to frame, shoot and orchestrate scenes of fear and apprehension that would make a young, hungry Steven Spielberg proud. For someone with so little time behind the camera, ( I believe this is only Witherspoons second movie), he impresses at every turn with his confidence behind the wheel, (pun intended).
In fact, though the plot of RAGE may appear, at first, to borrow heavily from Spielberg's own debut, DUEL, (hell, theres even a monologue discussing the merits of that movie in here), Witherspoon soon hurtles off in his own dark direction. Karma, moral choice, and fate, all drop by with a knife to take a swing at the viewer, yet the film never becomes po-faced, or wallows in pretense. Its a streamlined, hyper-tense joyride, that just happens to hold deeper subtext, should one wish to look. At heart, RAGE is a refreshingly simple Horror movie that goes right back to basics, and eschews all the bullshit that the mainstream has forced upon us poor bastards for so long. Theres no CG nonsense going down here, just a guy in jet black biker gear, taking no fucking prisoners.
And what a villain. The unknown force here can be summed up with only one word : Badass. This guy has a severe chip on his shoulder, ( I won't give away the reasons, so relax), and will go to any lengths to ease the load. As events quickly spiral out of control, it becomes clear than this nutcase is Micheal Myers with a cool-ass ride, and a wicked sense of humour to boot. the director plays this unknowable maniac, himself, and does a great job at expressing the anger, resilience and sheer danger that exudes from this creepy bastard. RAGE has as memorable a villain as 'Ive seen in Horror in a long time, and I can see this guy becoming something of an icon, if Karma treats Witherspoon a little better than his poor protagonist.
The film is mainly a two-hander, with our crazy-as-fuck biker on one side, and our long suffering good-guy on the other. Its a cat and mouse game that spends most of its running time focusing on these two souls. And in actor, Rick Crawford, RAGE has found a capable lead, who's willing to dirty his hands and flesh out a guy who is very human , and, subsequently, very flawed, while remaining likable, even when cowardice takes its toll. After all, I personally would run like hell if I came across 'The Rider', and I'd throw grannies in front of me to slow him down, (not that our lead does that). There are a few moments when Crawford's performance feels a little forced, but I put that down to inexperience. He performs well, and makes for a very believable counterpoint to our friendly neighbourhood biker. Its great to see a lead who isn't afraid to cry like a baby when the going gets tough. We all would, and we fucking know it. Kudos to the actor, for taking a courageous route with the character.
His wife, played by Audrey Walker, puts in a strong performance also, and in one particularly brutal scene that showcases how far the biker will go, she really tugs the heartstrings. Apparently there have been walkouts on the festival circuits during that scene. In my mind, its Horror; I expect to be horrified. Its doing it damn job, so just calm the fuck down people.
Overall, Witherspoon demonstrates, with ease, that he has the chops to play with the big boys, and most likely knock them the fuck out, in the process. The chase scenes are brilliantly shot, the suspense scenes are, as I said, Hitchcockian, (and that should tell you all you need to know), and the violence is handled skillfully and with maturity. It never becomes a full-on bloodbath, but that's hardly the intent. This is all about edge-of-the-seat scares, and it overflows with such moments. Hitchcock and Carpenter never relied on gore, after all. RAGE gets bloody, it gets brutal, and in some scenes in gets downright disturbing, but it manages all this without over-the-top gore. In truth, all that good-stuff would probably have brought the movie down in my estimations. It simply doesn't need it.
RAGE is a shot in the arm, for indie Horror. Its great fun from start to finish. Violent, gripping and occasionally darkly humorous. Its as confident and as well crafted as any Independent Horror released this year, and deserves wide distribution. This thing is, sadly, still on the shelves, despite universal critical acclaim. That says nothing about the quality of the work on show, but it says a hell of a lot about the film industry and it's unwillingness to take chances on fresh talent.
I guess iconic killers, nail-biting suspense and pitch perfect directing and pacing don't really count for much these days...
RAGE is a gem. Find it, love it, and pray we get a sequel. Oh, and mainstream? Hire this fucking guy...
8 Leathered Lunatics out of 10
Authors Note : Completely off-topic, but I should also note that Portland is beautifully shot here, to the point where I'm considering moving there, (my lady is from that area, so she may owe Chris some thanks)