There are a lot of films called Rage, it seems. You don’t have to go back to the sixties, there were two in 2008, two in 2009 and one in 2010 so far. This is the latter, a horror suspense thriller from Chris Witherspoon, here credited with full first name and middle initial too, as if he’s really serious this time. His last film as writer, actor, producer and director was 2004’s Middle Man but he added even more roles this time: he covered the cinematography, the editing, the effects and the sound too. It begins peacefully enough, without even a hint of rage. A young kid cycles through a quiet Portland neighbourhood throwing papers onto porches, a woman walks her dog, homeowners check their mail. Even the tubby guy who managed to get his chainsaw stuck in a tree seems to be happy as punch. The man we watch though is Dennis Twist, who leaves his quiet neighbourhood on his day off to meet with his mistress to tell her that it’s all over. He loves his wife.
He seems to be sincere. He’s a little distracted as he kisses his wife goodbye but he offers to take care of that chainsaw for his neighbour sometime that afternoon, even makes plans on the phone for lunch with a friend. This is before he meets the biker though, a biker who he manages to annoy without ever meaning to. The trigger is hardly highlighted, but it certainly seems to be something of importance to the biker, with his full black helmet that looks innocuous until the incidents begin and then we can’t help but think of Darth Vader and a shift to the dark side. This unknown and faceless rider stops in front of him at the lights and refuses to go on green, then reappears a little later and slices up the side of his car with a knife while he’s at another light drinking coffee. ‘I could have killed him,’ he tells his friend over lunch, and it’s this reaction that gives us our title. We don’t know what the connection is here but these protagonists only know how to escalate.
Rick Crawford is an interesting choice for a lead actor. Far from a Portland native, he was born and bred in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and while I’ve heard a lot thicker accents in my time he certainly sounds like it. After eight years on the stage in Ireland, he moved to Los Angeles and aimed at the big screen. This looks like his second lead role in a feature, following an ambitious part as a soldier with post traumatic stress disorder in a microbudget movie called Wild Sunflowers. This is a subtler story, one that builds slowly but surely with a few flashbacks and cleverly shot nightmare scenes. The key influence is already obvious but is underlined after his brake line is cut. ‘You must have pissed off the wrong person,’ the mechanic tells him, explaining how he’s lucky to be alive. While Twist waits for him to make his car safe again, he overhears a couple of guys talking about Steven Spielberg. ‘Yet you haven’t seen Duel,’ one tells the other and explains the metaphor behind it.
The questions here are all about how closely Rage follows the metaphor of Duel. If Duelwas about one man on an inescapable road with life bearing down on him, is Rage about one man stalked by karma? Initially Twist thinks that the biker is just an idiot but when he gets serious he assumes that it’s his mistress Dana’s criminal boyfriend, who’s out on parole. For the longest time we don’t have a clue, because it’s just Witherspoon in his motorbike leathers and helmet, acting as the film runs on less and less like the truck driver in Duel and more and more like your average slasher movie stalker. When I said escalate, I really meant it. Witherspoon doesn’t hold back in the slightest as to the levels he’s prepared to go to with this story. We never see the biker’s face but we do eventually learn his motivation and that brings the karma backlash for Twist in more ways than one. The last scene is shot well and leaves us thinking about everything we’ve seen, but it left me in two minds.
I really appreciated the irony that pervades the scenes back at Twist’s house. What happens there highlights who he really is and the old adage about what happens when you assume was never more bitterly apparent than here. We discover not just what these events are really about but what Twist believes these events are really about. These scenes are surreal because on one hand we’re being run through a routine slasher story but on the other Witherspoon is stripping bare so much character that it’s the actions of the victims that we focus on not those of their tormentor. Also clever is that it’s in what Twist says but in what his wife doesn’t say, and there’s admirable care given to their dialogue. Lesser filmmakers would have veered off into verbal conflicts that would have been a huge mistake but Witherspoon resists the urge, while simultaneously getting up close and bloody with the action. It’s a strange combination but a fascinating and unnerving one.
This action may end up being the biggest flaw, because in hindsight the credibility of the biker is more than a little impacted by the revelation of his motivation. We don’t have this luxury until the very end of the film, so it unfolds with chilling suspense. My wife and I had a string of theories that turned out to be fake, because we’d discarded the actual story early on, through red herrings and our own false assumptions. The biggest trick that Witherspoon pulls is that this is really a film that needs to be seen twice. That chilling suspense so apparent on a first viewing may not be there on a second because the film really isn’t about the biker in the slightest. It’s only as we get close to the end that we realise that it’s all about Twist and all the little details that we glossed over while trying to figure out who the biker was are the key to the entire story. It isn’t a suspense movie with a copout ending and it isn’t a slasher movie with character. It’s really a character study of guilt.