More promising than accomplished, “The Slaughter Rule” is the work of neophyte filmmakers whose reach still exceeds their grasp. Strong performances, a few dramatically potent scenes and a vividly specific evocation of locale barely offset hackneyed and muddled elements in a script that plays like a first draft. Sibling helmers Alex and Andrew Smith may be talents to watch, but it’s questionable whether their co-directorial debut will be seen much beyond fest circuit and pay cable.
All the same, pic deserves to be seen on bigscreen, if only so auds can fully appreciate the impressive widescreen compositions of Eric Edwards’ color lensing. Even cramped interior scenes are enhanced by Edwards’ handiwork, while exteriors convey an almost palpable sense of wintry melancholy in and around Blue Springs, the rural Montana town where drama unfolds.
Up-and-comer Ryan Gosling (star of Sundance 2001 Grand Jury Prize winner “The Believer”) is well cast and convincing as Roy Chutney, a high school senior who learns some tough life lessons. Shortly after the death of his estranged father — officially ruled an accident, but possibly a suicide — he endures another hard knock when he’s cut from his school’s football team.
Unwilling or unable to confide in his mother (Kelly Lynch), an airline stewardess, Roy spends most of his free time drinking and carousing with his best buddy, Tracy Two Dogs (Eddie Spears), a Blackfoot Indian with domestic problems of his own. But then along comes Gideon Ferguson (David Morse), a grizzled loner who hawks newspapers in local bars when he isn’t arranging amateur matches for six-man football squads. Gideon thinks Roy would be a terrific quarterback for his team, provided the young man concentrates on the sport and, just as importantly, drives Gideon to their far-flung games. For want of anything better to do, Roy joins the team and encourages Tracy to do the same.
Clea Duvall makes a winning impression as Skyla, a barmaid who drifts into an affair with Roy. (A passing thought: Why do so many characters in indie, as well as mainstream, pics not need to be 21 to serve or purchase alcoholic beverages in bars?) But the romantic subplot remains firmly in the background, and Roy’s relationship with his mother gets scarcely any attention at all. Bulk of pic is devoted to Roy’s friendship with Gideon, which is sorely tested by rumors — and, in Roy’s eyes, telltale signs — that suggest Gideon is gay.
The Smiths make an admirable bid for complexity and ambiguity by never completely clarifying Gideon’s status. As compellingly played by Morse, a great actor who gives pic more than it gives him, Gideon comes off as a sensitive soul who knows how risky it can be to appear too sensitive in a small town.
Pic’s dramatic highlight is a homoerotically charged scene in which Gideon waxes enthusiastic about the various ways that athletes express camaraderie. With equal measures of anger, confusion, suspicion and embarrassment, Roy counters that hugging teammates and grabbing asses don’t rank high among his favorite activities. Both actors are at the top of their game here.
Unfortunately, the Smiths rely on too many contrivances to wrap up “The Slaughter Rule.” Taking a page from “The Handbook for Lazy Screenwriters” — specifically, from the chapter titled “Coming-of-Age Cliches” — they propel the plot by having one supporting character die and another one get seriously injured.
And even then, too many threads are left dangling. They never explain, for example, why Roy’s mother is briefly glimpsed in bed, naked and weeping. Rather than seeming open-ended, final scenes come off as underwritten, if not half-baked.
Title refers to rule unique to six-man football matches: If one team falls behind by 45 points, the game ends immediately. Perhaps the producers of “Monday Night Football” might want to look into this.