February 5, 2003

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'The Slaughter Rule'
First down

THERE'S A RULE in Texas-style six-person football that, if one team is 45 points ahead of the opposition, the game is automatically called in their favor. It's known as "the slaughter rule," derived from the farming term for putting a wounded animal out of its misery. After Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling) learns his in absentia father has passed away and gets cut from his high school football team during one Montana winter week, he seems content to drink and brawl until his own personal mercy axe comes down. Instead, he gets Gideon "Gid" Ferguson (David Morse), a former coach and town burnout who sweet-talks Roy into quarterbacking for his rogue six-man team. Soon enough, Roy sees these bush-league games as a way to channel all of his repressed anger. What Gid sees in Roy, however, may be a bit more carnal than plain gridiron glory. Brimming with sweeping shots of lonely plains and empty vistas, the first feature from sibling filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith mines the lyrical Midwestern mythos – call it "poetic ruralism" – that directors such as Terence Malick and David Gordon Green have turned into a type of Americana transcendentalism. While the duo haven't quite reached their apogee yet (a tender young doe caught in a barbed-wire fence isn't the subtlest of metaphors), they know how to wring wrenching performances from actors. The underutilized Morse bypasses closeted-male clichés for complex phases of denial in a creepy key, keeping his father figure only slightly north of predatory; Gosling (The Believer) taps the reservoir of rage that now seems second nature to him. It's their turns that lift the film's big themes (loss and redemption) out of the big-sky-country scenery and learning-curve blues into something that, for all its faults, seems both fragile and uncomfortably familiar. (David Fear)