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Aggression Scale, The
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by Brett Gallman

"We need to talk about Owen."
4 stars

Thanks to “The Aggression Scale,” we shouldn’t have to worry about a “gritty” reboot of “Home Alone” coming anytime soon.

Steven Miller’s third feature is an odd duck in this respect since it does share a little bit of DNA with that John Hughes-penned holiday themed torture porn because it eventually boils down to a kid (Ryan Hartwig) arranging a series of deathtraps to fend off some thugs that have invaded his home. In this case, though,, they find themselves being legitimately gutted and pummeled in violent, visceral fashion instead of being caught in the live action “Itchy and Scratchy” episodes that Daniel Stern and Joe Peschi got stuck in.

But get this--“The Aggression Scale” still manages to play humorously. You’re not always exactly sure that you should be laughing, and the film has some tonal issues, but this is a wacky portmanteau of thriller, home invasion, and slasher flicks that’s sort of devilishly sly at times. It begins as a straight-laced crime-thriller, as our quartet of thugs are hired by their boss (a deliciously slimy Ray Wise) to track down some money that was stolen from him. They manage to eventually trace it back to a family who are moving into a new home, and they seem like an easy enough target--the parents are a couple of hopelessly white-bread lovebirds, each with a child from an earlier relationship. Lauren (Fabianne Therese) is bratty and rebellious, while Owen (Hartwig) is a weird and quiet preteen, so this bunch of professional hitmen might as well be licking their lips.

Except they aren’t counting on Owen being one deranged, sadistic hellion. He’s not just quiet--he’s eerily silent, and Hartwig actually plays him like he’s the bad seed, complete with a cold, vacant-eyed glare. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think “The Aggression Scale” was the latest “creepy kid” flick. There are hints that he’s also some kind of genius since he can complete puzzles with ease. So is he the spawn of Satan or just a high-functioning autism case? The answer is neither, and watching these four thugs figure out just what’s wrong with him is morbidly funny. By the end, you’ll be convinced this kid is the reincarnation of Kevin McCallister if he were trained by Rambo.

Most home invasion stories prey on our very real fears, but “The Aggression Scale” is a demented crowd-pleaser that’s both suspenseful and entertaining as we watch both Owen and Lauren fight for their lives. That you even care about the latter is a testament to Therese’s performance; upon introduction, Lauren can best be described as a little shit that you’re convinced won’t make it out of the first act alive. But somehow, “The Aggression Scale” is also this weird story of family bonding--geez, this thing really is a re-imagining of “Home Alone!”

There’s no mushy greeting card sentiment, though; instead, there’s plenty of wince-inducing moments that’ll have you both cheering and squirming in your seat all at once. When this thing gets going, it’s a cool little roller-coaster of a slasher film, complete with some sick gags and clever death sequences--one even sort of recalls the elaborate Rube Goldberg style setups of the “Final Destination” series. I perhaps would like to have seen Miller and company go even a little bigger and outlandish than they do with the gore. “The Aggression Scale” mostly embraces its somewhat absurd premise, but there are some opportunities to play it a little more broadly just to make sure everyone’s in on the joke.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t make it clear because these four gangsters’ reactions to the whole thing is a fantastic mixture of horror and disbelief. They’re led by a salt-and-pepper haired Dana Ashbrook, who might be the only one that’s fully competent--or at least he likes to think so. In contrast, the trio surrounding him are bumbling dolts, and Jacob Reynolds especially looks like he should be doing anything else besides glorified mob hits. His bald compatriot Derek Mears is an absolute hoot and gets the film’s best line that truly reveals how the script has been flipped on these guys. When he donned Jason Voorhees’s mask in the latest “Friday the 13th” film, he was the source of incredulity; now he’s the one stumbling about wondering just what he’s got himself into.

Like any slasher-ish flick, “The Aggression Scale” is a little rough around the edges when it comes to dialogue and logic, but Miller’s got the essentials mostly down pat. Gliding along with ease, his film satisfies with both laughs and violent thrills, and I can’t wait to see what he does with his reboot of “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” He’s already reinvented one holiday movie here, so why not another?

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originally posted: 04/15/12 17:55:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: ActionFest 2012 For more in the ActionFest 2012 series, click here.

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