A new twist on the home invasion film arrives in the form of The Aggression Scale, which pits a team of hitmen against a seventeen year old girl and her younger half-brother. It sounds pretty simple when I put it that way, but I haven't introduced you to the younger half-brother yet.
That youngster is played by a teen actor named Ryan Hartwig, but - with all respect to the young Mr. Hartwig - the actor alone is not what makes the movie work either. the thing that makes the film work is the character, Owen, who happens to be a bullying victim turned institutionalized mute boy turned teenage survival expert with a bad attitude.
The plot follows the two teens and their newly married parents - Bill (Boyd Kestner) and Maggie (Lisa Rotondi - as they movie into a secluded country estate. But the film only takes us to this home after it introduces a violent killer (Twin Peaks' Dana Ashbrook), his team of accomplices, and an angry crime boss (Ray Wise) who has to leave the country to avoid prison and wants his revenge on whoever stole his money. The set-up is simple - we've seen "upset gangster in city makes country violence occur" before - but the unique characters provide a spark.
Ashbrook is the film's first revelation, starting with a brutal opening scene that lets us know exactly what kind of movie we're about to see. The actor is not a physical specimen by any means, and I never found myself physically afraid of his alpha hit man character. But the film takes advantage of the actor's frailties, and when we do see the character lash out in anger it's effective because we know the character is willing to act inhumanely in an effort to complete his job. The film also helps Ashbrook get our attention by adding towering horror veteran Derek Mears - who played Jason in the most recent Friday the 13th - to his team of killers. In another intelligent move, the film makes Mears' character a comical failure, and the series of painful events that happen to his monster-sized character almost make us feel sympathy when he shrieks in pain with his entirely human voice.
Fabianne Therese is the final cog in the cast, playing the teenage daughter who doesn't understand Owen but knows she needs his help to survive the four killers who have descended on their new home. She's the voice of reason at times - though her logic when chastising Ashbrook's Lloyd in one crucial scene was a prime example of teenage thinking errors - and plays well off the silent blonde boy who is asked to be this film's Rambo.
Which takes us back to Hartwig, because it's the moments when the young actor is asked to do incredibly violent things that really carry The Aggression Scale to its greatest heights. The first encounter between Owen and Mears' character is a fantastic moment that sets the stage for the film, with the seemingly catatonic teen rising to action and taking control. Owen moves through this scene in a deliberate manner, and each move he makes indicates that the youngster has planned out his course of action for this kind of situation well in advance. The film doesn't harp on bullying like many news reports do, but as we watch Owen act throughout the film we begin to realize that his past traumas have created a truly efficient survivor.
The Aggression Scale works well due to unique characters, well-framed action, and a few excellent performances. But it reaches another level by handling the character of Owen so well, allowing Hartwig only a few sly smiles and still letting him get his point across. If you're looking for a violent thriller with an intriguing hook, The Aggression Scale is a movie I definitely recommend seeking out.