A film about football, redemption and the perils of intimacy among men, "The Slaughter Rule" opens in a blindingly bright snowy field in rural Montana. Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling), a teenager out leading a horse, has come across a small doe caught on a wire fence. Its eyes blinking in agony, the animal lies suspended between life and death when Roy begins to speak in plaintive voice-over: "My father told me that if I was hard enough I wouldn't break. He lied. Everything breaks." As we soon discover, with Roy and almost every character in this gravely sincere film, that deer isn't just trapped -- it's lethally entangled in metaphor.
Written and directed by brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, "The Slaughter Rule" premiered at last year's Sundance film festival, where it won admirers among audiences and critics alike. Between Gosling's raw talent and the magnificence of the film's wide-open country, it's easy to see why. Shot in CinemaScope by cinematographer Eric Edwards, the story unfolds against a backdrop of stark natural beauty that ranges from a brown winter field to an endless sky of blue and scarlet.
It's under the cover of all this swirling cloud and portent that Roy, a fatherless, nearly motherless boy, strikes up a friendship with Gideon "Gid" Ferguson (David Morse), an eccentric who coaxes the teenager into playing on his newly formed "six-man" football team. Six-man was conceived during the 1930s and is played anywhere enthusiasts don't have enough players for a regular team. Because six-man is faster-paced and racks up points quickly, teams will invoke something called the slaughter rule, which summarily ends a game when one team gets ahead by a wide margin.
For Roy, the appeal of Gid's team rests in the simple fact that he's been cut from his high school team for not being angry enough. His father had been a football star and apparently full of anger, and Roy desperately wants to play, if only to fill some inchoate need. Gid, who knew Roy's father or maybe his legend, has been keeping a watch on the teenager, and, when he sees his chance, he pounces.
Given how the Smiths lay on the metaphors, filling the air with pregnant silences as the camera searches the sky, it doesn't take any effort to guess the rest. Roy gets involved with a sad-eyed bartender (Clea Duvall), almost in passing, but saves most of his energy for football and, by extension, his increasingly uneasy relationship with Gid. A shambling bear of a man, the biblically named coach lives in near squalor, squeezing out a subsistence living peddling newspapers. He also performs old-timey tunes in a honky-tonk, keeps company with a rheumy wreck (David Cale) and can't keep his eyes off his new star, even when Roy is soaping up with the rest of the team during a postgame shower.
"The Slaughter Rule" has the virtue of sincerity but not that of restraint. Unlike Terrence Malick, whose shadow looms over the film's visual style, the Smiths over-explain, not grasping that all those barren fields and blood-red clouds are doing plenty of work for them. Here it isn't just the sky that's big and heavy; everything is, in particular Morse's performance. A sympathetic if sometimes unsteady screen presence, the actor doesn't just play Gid larger than life he fails to persuade us the guy is anything but a creep. When Gid fixes his eyes on Roy for the first time, it's a surprise he doesn't lick his lips. Gosling may not hit a wrong note in the film, and his wounded character is undoubtedly catnip, but for a story about repression, the desire in Gid's eyes burns awfully bright.
MPAA rating: R, for language and sexual content.
Times guidelines: Sexual themes, some nudity.
Ryan Gosling...Roy Chutney
David Morse...Gideon Ferguson
Clea Duvall...Skyla Sisco
A Solaris presentation, in association with Barnstorm Entertainment, released by Cowboy Pictures. Writers-directors Alex Smith, Andrew Smith. Producers Michael Robinson, Gregory O'Connor. Cinematographer Eric Edwards. Editor Brent White. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In limited release.