Arare serious U.S. screen attempt to grapple with traditional notions of masculinity and machismo, particularly between fathers and sons, Victor Salva’s “Rites of Passage” marks the writer-director’s first effort since his 1995 mainstream sleeper “Powder.” Though otherwise very different, new pic shares that earlier work’s sometimes-awkward but watchable mix of intense sequences and melodramatic contrivance. Modest indie production will be a more natural fit for broadcast slots, but could stir interest amongst enterprising arthouse distribs.
Success of the Disney release “Powder” announced Salva as an intriguing new talent, but also prompted an ugly public scandal involving the then-underage lead of his first feature, “Clownhouse.” Self-described as his most personal effort, “Rites of Passage” (originally called “The Manhood Ritual”) further articulates running themes of alienation, sexual identity and childhood trauma.
Opening seg sets the volatile tenor as two hunters camping in a remote SoCal area are confronted by another, suspicious male duo, with deadly results. Action then flashes to an urban hotel where young attorney D.J. (Robert Keith) accidentally discovers his father, Del (Dean Stockwell), in the company of a mistress. He’s appalled; Dad insists they talk it out at the family’s longtime mountain cabin.
Arriving there, both are further dismayed to discover D.J.’s brothers, Campbell (Jason Behr), who’s been incommunicado since a violent fight — involving the latter’s boyfriend — two years prior. Despite anger all around, the men settle down for a tense, hopefully air-clearing discussion.
But they, too, are interrupted by suspicious visitors — Frank (James Remar) and squirrelly Red (Jaimz Woolvett), who claim car trouble. Initially gracious, Frank soon exhibits menace, as he perceives and presses various emotional buttons — especially those of the hot-tempered, in-charge Del. This goading fast develops into a hostage situation, one that narrowly averts violence for a while.
Briefly, the interlopers appear to have fled. But their return reveals a surprising (and credulity-straining) prior hidden connection between Frank and Cam. Latter is torn between loyalties as Dad barricades the house, prompting “Straw Dogs”–type face-off between family members inside and the escaped cons outside.
Though executed with taut restraint, and boasting some potent dialogue confrontations, Salva’s script racks up too many reversals of power as the stakes ratchet up, with the somewhat sexually charged relationship between Cam and his “darker” new father figure, Frank, forcing viewer into serious suspensions of disbelief. Pic thus constantly wavers across a line between dead seriousness and hyperbolic near-silliness.
Well turned on a low budget, tightly paced effort benefits from solid performances all around, with Remar simmering effectively in a role that might easily have turned outsize bogeyman. Tech package is accomplished, though lensing depends perhaps overmuch on close-ups, and there’s one awkward, abrupt jump from night to day exterior lighting.