May 29, 2012 (US DVD)
Steven C. Miller
Ryan Hartwig as Owen
Fabianne Therese as Lauren
Ray Wise as Bellavance
Derek Mears as Chissolm
Dana Ashbrook as Lloyd
Bellavance (Ray Wise) is a very powerful man. Having just been released from prison, he’s intent on skipping town and vanishing forever just as soon as he gets back $500,000 that was stolen from him while he was imprisoned. He enlists a trusted hitman named Lloyd to get together a group of three additional hitmen (including Chissolm, played by Derek Mears) to hunt down his money by any means necessary. The foursome cuts a bloody, murderous path through the people who wronged Bellavance but only seems to find bits and pieces of the missing money. This quest leads them to Bill (Boyd Kestner), his new wife Maggie (Lisa Rotondi), and his son and stepdaughter, Owen and Lauren (Ryan Hartwig and Fabianne Therese). The family is still enduring the bumps and bruises a remarriage and move can provide, but those are nothing compared to a group of gun-toting hitmen bursting into your home with evil intentions and no remorse. This particular stop on Lloyd’s trail of mayhem might be a little more than meets the eye, though, because little Owen may be quiet, but he’s about to prove resourcefulness and a near-psychotic self-preservation instinct know no age boundaries.
The Aggression Scale asks a very interesting question: what would happen if the basic plot ofHome Alone were redone, only replacing bumbling bank robbers with highly-trained hit men and Kevin McCallister with a mute, near-psychotic savant? Now, instead of a goofy, cartoonish comedy, the story becomes an intense crime thriller powered by great performances from the hitmen and their foes. The genre filmography of director Steven C. Miller is eclectic to say the least (he’s also behind the upcoming remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night, the Syfy channel original Scream of the Banshee, and the low-budget zombie movie Automaton Transfusion), but he’s definitely on the right track if he keeps work like this up. However, he’s also still hindered by the flaws of the script he’s given and, while Ben Powell’s work in that area is mostly good, it does have a huge issue that would’ve killed the movie were the performances and main conflict not so great: its poor first third.
It’s appreciated that the filmmakers followed both the hitmen and the family during the first third of the movie. It allows both groups to be established as characters and helps to build up to their inevitable conflict (given Bill and Maggie seem unusually jumpy in their new house). The issue, though, is that the hitmen and siblings are much more interesting than the overall family unit. While the movie starts by following Bellavance and his cronies and does also feature a few great scenes with Owen and Lauren, most of the first third involves the family as a whole where it becomes readily apparent that Bill and Maggie aren’t really that interesting or engaging as characters. When the family is together or when either Bill or Maggie shares a scene with their children, the chemistry just isn’t there. In addition, this part of the movie is paced way too slowly. The hitmen don’t even arrive at the house until roughly a half-hour into a movie that’s only about 85 minutes with credits! The only reason this can be forgiven in the smallest of ways is because Powell’s script is smart enough during this period to introduce elements of the house and surrounding woods that will become important once everything goes downhill.
Thankfully, once the hitmen do arrive, Bill and Maggie mostly take a backseat and allow the more interesting characters and actors to take center stage, basically saving the film. On the “bad” side, Wise, Mears, and Ashbrook do great jobs. Wise’s “Bellavance” is quite clearly over-the-top and evil, but he’s not so over-the-top as to become caricature and comedic. “Chissolm” as played by Mears definitely has the ruthless side of his compatriots, but it’s also balanced by a very light touch of humanity and humor as the movie continues. Finally, Ashbrook’s “Lloyd” is phenomenal because he comes across a bit more over-the-top evil and remorseless than Wise, but that’s understandable given there’s a touch of panic to his character as his own life is on the line if he can’t find the money.
As for the good, “Lauren” as played by Therese is an interesting character because of her progression in the film. At first, she’s a mildly annoying teen butting heads with her stepfather and purposely doing everything in her power to hinder the move. After the hitmen arrive, however, the character becomes humbled out of fear and panic and is much better for it. However, if there’s one actor who deserves a long career stemming from The Aggression Scale, it’s Ryan Hartwig as “Owen”. In a basically mute performance, Hartwig is undeniably a “good” character to root for but also dark and disturbing from just how abnormally focused and prepared he is for something he couldn’t possibly have prepared for. For instance, where Kevin in Home Alone had the time to fill his house with elaborate traps, Owen has only seconds and minutes in complete focused silence to set up crude maneuvers from his surroundings that are shockingly effective and thankfully played straight (making his actions more “survivalist” than “cartoony”). It’s this sense that he’s somehow done this or something similar before that makes him absolutely fascinating to watch as well as improves the performances of the hitmen as it’s clear they’ve never seen anything like this before either.
Overall, The Aggression Scale is a well-done movie helped by an interesting central conflict and engaging characters and performances. The problem is that the story needs to actually GET to that central conflict faster instead of spending too much time with some of its weaker characters. Once it does, though, it overcomes that significant flaw to end up an above-average and satisfying thriller.