At the movies

Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 1:19 a.m.
RATED: NR STARS: Ryan Gosling, David Morse THEATERS: Hippodrome Cinema The hard-hitting and frighteningly well acted "The Slaughter Rule" explores the uneasy relationship between a Montana teen-ager who's lost his father and the amateur football coach who wants to toughen him up.
"The Slaughter Rule" is a film as hard-hitting as its subject - six-man football in rural Montana. Six-man, we city folks may gather from the film, is what the small, remote schools and American Indian reservations in the plains states play when they don't have the resources for a full football program, and it appears to be a wide-open game every bit as hard and furious as the 11-man game, maybe more. And this is just the backdrop for an intense human story of small-town life, personal loss and masculine relationships.
Two lives cross fatefully in "The Slaughter Rule." One is Roy Chutney, a lanky high school quarterback who goes through life with a vacant smirk on his face, even when, at the film's beginning, he's informed of the death - suicide, maybe - of his dad. He's still smiling when he's cut from the school team. "Chutney, look at you," the coach says. "You got no gumption. You ain't angry enough. I ain't got room for 'ain't angry enough.'"
The other is Gideon "Gid" Ferguson (David Morse), a gruff, barrel-chested stranger in town who ekes out a slight living selling newspapers and corners Roy in the local diner with the idea of starting a team. This is a chance for both men to start fresh - Roy gets to play football again while Gid can revive his dream of coaching six-man, a dream which was shattered after a mysterious tragedy involving a young player in the state of Texas, where he's no longer permitted to coach.
Their relationship is a fascinating one - sometimes close and fatherly, other times a little too intimate for comfort, with sexual overtones that make Roy nervous and draw taunts from his schoolmates. In many ways this connection is just what both of them needed, particularly Roy who is challenged to grow up and toughen up and confront the demands of being a man in a rugged culture. What Gid gets from this arrangement is harder to read and it's what fuels the rumors about him around town. But just like a football player thrives on the brutal pounding of body against body, these two seem to be fulfilling a need with their physical and emotional collisions.
"The Slaughter Rule" is simply a great movie, made with intelligence and passion. For a small story in a remote corner of America, told with subtlety and ambiguity, its exploration of humans adrift hits you like a 250-pound linebacker no matter where you're from. And it features a terrifyingly real performance by David Morse as the almost unknowable Gid - a character who brings with him the promise of either destruction or redemption and has both power and gnawing need at his core.
- Joshua Tanzer

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