Social drama and American gothic meet at the junction of “River Red.” And while there’s no reason these two dramatic elements shouldn’t flow, filmmaker Eric Drilling lacks the experience and focus to make the strands of his knotted yarn mesh. The absence of a compelling narrative in this dour piece limits its commercial prospects, making more than token theatrical distribution highly unlikely. Pic could realize some television play, but it remains primarily a resume piece in the already overcrowded arena of indie movies seeking to find a niche in the marketplace.
Set in rural New England, pic wastes no time in establishing a history of abuse and alcoholism in a single-parent family. In a misguided act, David Holden (Tom Everett Scott) fatally stabs his father in order to protect his brother Tom (David Moscow) from ongoing physical harm. The younger man, a minor, takes the rap and is sent to a juvenile correction facility.
Dave soon discovers that his father has left nothing but debts. He takes a job as a dishwasher and attempts to pay outstanding money by selling off the wood on the property. But neither task works out, and he finds himself confronting rapidly depleting financial resources and local good will.
His solution is all too cinematically familiar. Dave grabs a gun, dons a ski mask and turns to robbing convenience stores in neighboring towns. His lame explanation (which no one stops to question) is that a rich relative left him a hefty inheritance.
Based on his one-act play (which was directed by Scott), Drilling posits some intriguing ideas but fails to make vital connections. Dave is obviously racked by guilt, but his closed nature, coupled with the dark secret, frustrate a budding relationship with Rachel (Cara Buono), and his life of crime is a short-term solution to a problem that isn’t going to disappear.
The sense of inevitability and Drilling’s deliberately paced direction sap “River Red” of any genuine revelation. Though skilled technically and buoyed by a fine cast, its dramatic arc is telegraphed virtually from the outset and never veers from a prescribed route.
Scott, in a radical about-turn from “That Thing You Do,” is saddled with a character inward to the point of impenetrability, leaving Buono the thankless task of trying to beat down the walls he’s constructed. The script attempts to shore up the character’s motivation with the introduction of a couple of authority figures — a shrink and a judge — commenting on moral choices. It’s an awkward device.
Only Moscow enlivens the action. Unfortunately, he returns late in the story and cannot put the film back on track as it crawls to a bloodless conclusion.