A few months ago I had the film nerd pleasure of showing a room full of folks Steven Spielberg's debut film Duel. I talked a bit about that experience when I covered that film back then, but the biggest thing I took away from the experience was just how much the crowd of viewers wanted to re-wire the mind of the film's lead character. Horror films often get a bad reputation from fans who respond to movies by saying "I liked it, but that character was dumb when they ___________; I would have ________________ instead!", and Spielberg's Duel seems to really abuse that aspect of the film viewing experience. The lead character is not a hero - in fact, I'd say the viewers don't even like him - yet the film captivates us because the conflict he's caught in is one we think we could understand if it happened to us.
Which brings me to Christopher Witherspoon's thriller Rage, a film whose inspiration is evident even before two extras on a bench loudly start discussing Duel and the theme of faceless aggression that is shared by Witherspoon's film. Like Duel, Rage follows a lone man on the road, but this version has a battle between a motorist who is dealing with his own personal issues and a black visor-ed fellow on a motorcycle. The lead - played by Rick Crawford - is a married man who is using his day off to break up with his mistress, but instead ends up trying to outwit that fella, a non-descript guy who carries a big knife and seems to have a built in GPS for finding his human target.
Also like Duel, the movie primarily focuses on our not-a-hero and his inner struggle while trying to figure out who this man on wheels is and why he's made it his personal mission to terrify him. Crawford has the same slightly pathetic charm (can I really even call it "charm"?) that Duel's Dennis Weaver offered, and I imagine viewers will have a similar response to this film thanks to him. I admit that I even caught myself falling into that "Wait, why doesn't he just _______________?!?!?!" trap a few times during the film. That's nothing to be ashamed of, it's the natural response for someone who witnesses a crisis situation. Witherspoon has clearly studied the tricks used in Duel, and he executes them - and plenty of other tricks from horror favorites - well throughout the film.
Rage doesn't have the same tension Duel does, but it's easy to give Witherspoon a pass when you consider that not many filmmakers can be Spielberg. My biggest concerns came when the action-packed film seemed to lose a bit of steam once the story became confined to the lead character's home. The events of the final act do present some human horror when the lead's wife (played by Audrey Walker, who gives a very good performance) becomes involved in the conflict, but the tone seems to shift too dramatically in these scenes. The bloody and sadistic events of the final act should please gore lovers, and I won't deny their impact in pushing Rage toward its conclusion. But I couldn't help wondering if a less bloody conclusion to the story might have helped maintain the interest I had in the film's first hour. There are a lot of films that offer the same things the final act offers, and I was disappointed by the shift from the city-spanning, vehicle-based events that happened earlier in the film.
Those quibbles aside - it seems like I want to re-write the final act of every movie some days, doesn't it? - Rage keeps things simple and works because it focuses on the characters' plight and not the characters themselves. There's something to be said for the power that's wielded by a vicious and faceless antagonist, because you've got no reason to root for them - even if the protagonist is a sniveling wuss. Rage knows that and uses it to its advantage. Heck, I argued about how silly viewers are for imposing their beliefs on this kind of movie two paragraphs ago....and then I tried to impose my beliefs on this movie in the last paragraph.
And that's the beauty you'll find in this kind of thriller; the beauty you'll find in Christopher Witherspoon's Rage. The film grabs hold of the viewer and keeps them staring at the screen, subtly encouraging them to bark instructions at the characters and ruminate about just why this biker is so angry. Even better, it's the kind of film that then resonates after the final shot, because that's when our mind slows back down to normal speed and we start to really understand what we just saw.
Basically, Rage is an effective popcorn thriller because it's got a great concept that it executes that concept with style. The cast does well (BTW, that's Witherspoon under the biker helmet, which makes him the actor/writer/photographer/editor/producer/director of the film), the pacing is brisk up until the final act, and the musical score accentuates everything so well. That's really all I need to recommend this intelligent and entertaining chiller.
For more information on Rage, be sure to head over to the official site, or check out the trailer below!