The Aggression Scale (2012)
(15) Running time: 82 minutes
Director: Steven C Miller
Writer: Ben Powell
Starring: Ryan Hartwig, Fabianne Therese, Dana Ashbrook, Ray Wise, Derek Mears
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Director Steven C. Miller’s last film was the truly awful Scream of the Banshee, a horrific, terrible film that made me a little worried about how his next film, The Aggression Scale, would turn out. However, a couple of stunning trailers and some superb word of mouth after its festival run, I began to believe in Steven C. Miller’s talents. The director’s next film is the horror Under the Bed, where two brothers have to battle a monster under their bed, and currently in production is the highly anticipated remake of Santa horror Silent Night. Miller has clearly made his mark, and on the evidence of The Aggression Scale, it has made people sit up and take notice of him. I certainly have, so let me explain…
The Aggression Scale begins with a simple premise: a nasty crime boss is up for murder, and while on bail he gets his henchmen to track down some money for him so that he, and his young Son, can escape the country and start a new life. Ray Wise coldly and brilliantly portrays crime boss Bellavance, and he warns his hired killers that if they do not come back with his money in 48 hours, their names will be on his next list. The killers, lead by the chilling and extremely brutal Lloyd (a superb Ashbrook), set off on a violent mission to hunt those with links to Bellavance’s money and kill them, “making as much noise as possible” so Bellavance can send a message not to “fuck with me!” What the killers did not count on is a psychotic young boy named Owen (Hartwig), who is the Son of Bill Rutledge (Boyd Kestner), the last man on their list…
The Aggression Scale is a breath of fresh air in today’s over-crowded world of violent thrillers and tales of revenge and murder. Miller brings a unique style and substance to a story that could easily have been just another genre film, and instead becomes something far far better than expected. The opening montage of murders (one totally unexpected and terrifically executed) mixed in with opening credits that will remind viewers of Nicolas Winding Refn’s classic Drive, set the tone. Dark, violent and not afraid to catch viewers off guard, Miller’s film is a beast of unsettling, almost barbaric tension and savage, gut wrenching violence. Miller holds the viewers attention, in fact he demands it by delivering nail biting suspense as the horrific events unfold.
The hired killers are a superb bunch of villains: often in low budget films like this, the actors portraying the bad guys can be a little too forced, or over the top and lose all credibility. Not here, each and every one of this horrible bunch oozes nastiness, and the performances could not have been better. There is even the one criminal who chooses to use a knife rather than a gun, making him appear far more chilling and frightening to watch on screen. The criminals are impressive to look at, and totally convince, however when they stumble upon the psychotic Owen, you almost, almost feel sorry for them.
The Rutledge family have just moved into a new house, the parents starting out a new relationship and the daughter Lauren (Therese) and son Owen not exactly seeing eye to eye. Miller deals with the family’s broken relationship on screen with care and superb attention to keeping things as real as possible. The scripting here is top notch, and you will find yourself caring for this family, and not actually wanting to see bad things happen to them. We meet Owen as he rides with his Father, clearly there is some deep rooted trauma: there are some dark secrets here, and Owen, even though he never says a word, has incredible screen presence. Hartwig delivers an amazing performance of a young, troubled boy who chooses not to speak, and has some horrific, violent tendencies. The choice to have the boy completely silent works wonders for the films raw power: Owen’s chilling facial expressions will tell you all you need to know, and the lack of speech profiles someone dangerously out of touch with reality, completely detached. Owen’s character alone elevates the film into new territory, menacing territory, and the film becomes unpredictable and hugely satisfying. The simple act of how he chooses to kill a spider in his new room is enough to send shivers down the spine’s of even the hardest of horror fans, so be warned, things are about to get nasty!
It is not only Owen who is troubled, but his ‘sister’ Lauren also has issues, and she likes to carry a Stanleyblade on her at all times. The blade itself becomes a tool for a shocking, and truly wince inducing moment of violence when two blades are placed on a window frame. It is scenes like this which show off Miller’s delicious taste for violence: he wants to grab your attention, he wants to shock you and he succeeds. Violence comes at regular intervals, and while mostly brief, it certainly leaves its mark: it is shocking and so unpredictable you really will not know what to expect next. However, Miller cleverly mixes moments of shocking savagery with the blackest humour possible. Witness one villain announce “I think I’m gonna puke” as he attends to some rather nasty wounds. His pal responds “you’re not gonna puke”, “how the fuck do you know” is the comeback, and you will find yourself quietly chuckling when you know you shouldn’t. Or when another villain plans to have the job over quickly because he wants “to see my wife, and then my girlfriend”
However, it is the relentless menace in the film which makes The Aggression Scale such an addictive watch. The use of a thundering, dark rock soundtrack with an almost otherworldly feel, and the often bizarre and off the wall use of camera angles, along with editing which is pitch perfect help create tension, nervousness and a real sense of things escalating into something much worse. Miller delivers expert pacing (the film never feels forced or too long) and has a great sense of how to frighten his viewers, Hell he relishes in it! This film is ultimately Millers, but the truly outstanding performance by Hartwig is something to really admire. At such a young age he has crafted a monstrous character, and a scene where his sister calls him a freak (after he somehow just knows how to break into a building) will tell you almost everything you need to know about him. The blink and you’ll miss it smile after being labelled such a monster is chilling and ice cold. Owen is a character that will haunt you for weeks after: in fact, the whole film is likely to embed in the back of your mind, thanks to some wonderful directing skills, fantastic performances and a simple yet in your face story that will not give you any breathing space. Not only that, but the final moments will honestly test those who claim to be able to handle anything on screen, terrific stuff.
This is top notch filmmaking from a director still learning his craft, and if Miller can deliver something as good, polished and effective as this so early on in his career, then we are looking at horrors next big director.