Under the Radar: Brian Cox in “Red” (2008)

This is the first entry in an ongoing series by Parallax View contributor Jeff Shannon, written in appreciation of lesser-known films, performances, film-related achievements or other newsworthy items that haven’t received the attention they deserve.

Don’t get me wrong: Red is a not great movie, or even a very good one. But if you’re looking for a minor gem that won’t waste your time, you might find (as I did) that Red will grab and hold your attention, and that’s a lot more than you can say about the mostly-redundant, higher-profile crap coming out of Hollywood these days.

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Tagline: "They Should Have Told the Truth"

More to the point, Red is a worthy showcase for an exceptional actor who’s earned plenty of critical praise but relatively little public appreciation. Brian Cox first came to American critical attention for originating the role of Hannibal Lecter (then spelled “Lecktor”) in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), by which time the burly Scot (b. Brian Denis Cox, Dundee, Scotland, June 1, 1946) had been working in U.K. television and movies for over two decades. His career boosted by his cleverly sinister performance as Lecter, Cox has been in demand ever since: Among his 141 acting credits currently listed on IMDb, my personal favorites include his memorably villainous turn in Rob Roy (he also appeared in Braveheart the same year, 1995); his complex and enigmatic portrayal of pederast “Big John” Harrigan in Michael Cuesta’s risky-but-rewarding L.I.E. (2001); and, more recently, his flamboyant yet melancholy turn as traveling showman Jack Langrishe in the third (and sadly final) season of HBO’s Deadwood (2006).

Those were all serious roles, each blessed with the subtle humor that informs many of Cox’s performances. Occasionally that humor is delightfully less than subtle: Cox is one of the better reasons to watch Super Troopers (2001); he scored an Emmy nomination for an appearance on TV’s Frasier (1993); and his line deliveries in The Ringer (2005) are pee-your-pants hilarious.

Now we can add Red to the roster of Cox’s finest work to date; it’s “under the radar” because it’s been little-seen beyond its Sundance premiere in January 2008. (I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t happened upon the film’s one-night preview on HDNet Movies, on the eve of its brief U.S. theatrical release in a handful of east-coast cinemas.)

With its effectively manipulative blend of Road House, Death Wish, and The Brave One, Red would almost certainly have enjoyed modest box-office profit had it been released in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, or during the peak of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry cycle. It’s a simmering potboiler that begins on a bucolic lakeshore in Oregon, where Avery “Av” Ludlow (Cox) sits in a picnic chair, peacefully fishing with his 14-year-old dog, Red, by his side. This rural quietude is shattered when a trio of local punks led by Danny McCormack (Noel Fisher) torments Ludlow for the few bills in his wallet. Just for kicks, the sociopathic Danny kills Red with a shotgun, and Ludlow’s agonized quest for retribution is quickly set in motion.

Red began as a popular novel by horror specialist Jack Ketchum, which explains the initial involvement of Lucky McKee (director of May and the “Sick Girl” episode of Masters of Horror) who had earlier produced The Lost (2005) based on another Ketcham novel. Details about Red’s problematic history remain vague, but it’s well known that McKee shot most of the film before production was halted for six months in 2006. Norwegian director Trygve Allister Diesen was hired to finish filming the following year.

Regardless of who shot what, Red isn’t exactly the kind of film you’d want to scrutinize too closely. Its guilty pleasures lie largely on the surface, including the Roadhouse-like battle of wills between “Av” Ludlow (who runs the local general store) and Danny-the-punk’s equally repugnant father, a trucking kingpin and trophy wife-abuser played with psychotic relish by Tom Sizemore, who employs his familiar eye-blinking lunacy to signal daddy’s sneering pride over his bad-seed progeny. There’s more substantial satisfaction to be found in the noteworthy supporting cast (including Kim Dickens, Amanda Plummer, Robert Englund, and stalwart character actor Richard Riehle), but it’s Cox who grounds Red in the noble emotions of a peaceful man who’s been pushed too far.

As Ludlow’s backstory is gradually revealed (including military service that might’ve placed him in Korea with Eastwood’s Gran Torino curmudgeon), Cox maintains low-key emphasis on the dignity of a man who’s seen too much violence and now avoids it at all costs. He’d never be the first to pull a trigger, which adds extra suspense to the film’s gunfight showdown, in which the McCormacks’ refusal to admit their wrongdoing yields unexpectedly tragic dividends.

He's a nice guy...until you're not.
He's a nice guy...until you're not.

Cox isn’t above a bit of ham-slicing to underscore his character’s innate decency (especially when recalling a family tragedy to a sympathetic reporter played by Dickens), but more often he drives Red forward with a stoical demeanor that only rarely bursts into forceful physicality. So, for example, when he self-defensively serves Danny with some well-deserved payback, the moment is brief, verbally subdued, and immensely satisfying.

Credited as one of the film’s producers, Cox surely knew that Red would play to his strengths. The result is a better-than-expected film that fared poorly in theatrical distribution, not because it isn’t worth seeing, but because the market’s insistence on marquee value – above and beyond the presence of Cox, Sizemore, and a sharp supporting cast – relegates movies like this to under-the-radar status. Don’t let that stop you from checking it out. You may be pleasantly surprised.