Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, October 2011
Review: While Simon Rumley’s first three low-budget features Strong Language (2000), The Truth Game (2001) and Club Le Monde (2002) were dialogue-driven comedy dramas that earned comparisons to Eric Rohmer and Richard Linklater from the press, his fourth film marked a radical stylistic departure for the writer/director. Inspired both by the recent deaths of his own parents, and by his discovery of the filmmaking sensibility of Kim Ki-duk (The Isle), The Living and the Dead (2006) presented a family’s harrowing, manic descent into tragedy, told more through hallucinatory images and bravura editing than verbal exposition. It found its natural home at genre festivals, even if its particular brand of horror was rooted in finely sketched characters and in the formalist ellipses and symmetries of Rumley’s storytelling rather than in the superficial appeal of monstrous bogeymen and special effects.
Rumley’s follow-up, Red White & Blue, is similarly difficult to categorise, falling somewhere between intense psychodrama, twisted romance and revenger’s tragedy. There are certainly traces of rape-revenge, and even of something like ‘torture porn’, in the film’s jigsaw-like tripartite texture, but a firm focus on character grounds all the horror in plausibly human psychology. The three lost souls who form the film’s bizarre triangle of love, revenge and death are each at a crossroads. Although bed-hopping drifter Erica (Amanda Fuller) metes out nightly punishments of extreme passive aggression upon Austin’s male populace for the sexual abuse she experienced since her earliest years, she yearns for a more stable life. That stability might just come from the softly spoken Nate (Noah Taylor), “honourably” (as he insists) “discharged” from service in Iraq, who offers her a job and more, even as he must himself decide whether to embrace once again – or put forever behind him – a very dark past. Meanwhile local mamma’s boy Franki (Marc Senter) is not sure whether to continue pursuing his path of juvenile fecklessness, or to become a responsible adult – until, confronted with the unexpected and unwanted consequences of a prior indiscretion, he reverts to whining, self-pitying form, only with added psychotic tendencies. All three leads bring a subtle accomplishment to their rôles, retaining our sympathies for the many, at times murderous flaws of their characters.
The title Red White & Blue may evoke the narrative’s tripartite, colour-coded structure (as well as the allegorical hues of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s famous trilogy), but its most obvious reference is to the colours of the US flag. Indeed all the film’s torments and brutalities are linked to America’s recent history of revenge-driven atrocities abroad through the character of Nate, a one-time military interrogator (and sadist) who, having engaged in a compulsive act of vengeance that can never truly be complete, is heard to declare the resonant (if empty) Bush-ism “Mission accomplished.” For every revenge here (and all three characters are avengers of sorts) seems both misdirected and tragically avoidable, leaving a trail of collateral damage and creating a horrific legacy.
This film reaffirms Rumley as one of Britain’s most important and intelligent, if largely overlooked, independent filmmakers. He directs with remarkable restraint, his verbal and visual economy making viewers active participants in the story’s construction. Words here are few, but the use of distanced long shots to isolate the characters, and a disorienting edit that repeatedly disrupts chronological continuities, give full cinematic expression to the three principals’ disconnection – while the most unimaginable of depravities are left precisely to the imagination, where they are all the more confronting.
Synopsis: Austin, Texas, present day. A damaged survivor of domestic abuse, Erica cruises the local bars by night, coolly offering unprotected sex to all comers – although a treasured photo album, her relationship with a young boy at the local park, and the silent phone calls that she makes to her estranged mother, all point to a longing for a more settled life rooted in family. Gradually she drifts towards Nate, a taciturn Iraq veteran who, despite a sadistic bent, seems genuinely interested in her as a person. He gets her a job at the hardware store where he is currently working while he decides whether to accept a post with the CIA. Eventually Erica sleeps with him.
Life is on the up and up for Franki, one of Erica’s previous one-night stands. His garage band has been invited to tour Europe, his beloved mother’s cancer is in remission, and he has just got back together with his ex-girlfriend. Following a regular blood donation for his mother’s transfusion, Franki is informed that he has tested HIV-positive, and realises that Erica must be the source. Helped by his three friends, Franki abducts Erica, and when she shows reluctance to marry him, he keeps her prisoner in his attic. When his mother, also HIV-positive, commits suicide, Franki attacks Erica in a rage, and turns to his friends to help dispose of the body.
Revealing that he had worked as an interrogator in Iraq – and enjoyed his work – Nate tracks down, tortures and murders the four men one by one, reserving the most grotesquely painful demise for Franki. After calling his CIA contact to turn down the offer of further interrogation work, Nate is last seen burning a photo of his and Erica’s wedding.
© Anton Bitel