Owen is a fucking badass.

Ben Powell must have sat down one day and thought “what if Home Alone was made now?” and then proceeded to write a taught, tight, and totally wicked script for what would become The Aggression Scale. Add in stylish directing from Steven C. Miller and a cast of likable, if unknown, actors to play the central family and you’ve got a recipe for something special. Of course, selling this movie is as easily as saying “this is Home Alone if Macauley Culkin’s character was a 12 year old Jason Bourne” but there’s way more to it than that and the way information is delivered via tiny moments of very specific foreshadowing is part of the film’s substantial merit.

It’s probably worth mentioning that The Aggression Scale is gritty, not cheesy, and often feels like a home invasion horror movie, of which there are enough. This is something fresh, though, and this review will be about describing how.

The coup here is the discovery of Ryan Hartwig, who plays Owen.

The Aggression Scale opens with a bizarre act of violence. A silvered gunman opens a door as a female jogger comes up to enter and blasts her with a shotgun. A couple of kids watch in shocked silence as he takes a Polaroid of his victim. Then some slick credits, then a bit of plot development so we know what’s going down.

Bellavance (Ray Wise) is a mobster out on bail who is trying to track down some money that’s been stolen from him. His army of goons, led by Lloyd (Dana Ashbrook) heads out to execute the suspected thieves and their families, friends, whoever is around. Loud and messy, to send a message, he says. That’s how these guys end up at the big new country house of a blended family, the obvious perpetrators of the theft. Since we know what’s about to happen to these people, there’s an instant barrier of dislike for the parents (Boyd Kestner and Lisa Rotundi) who are both in on it. We are also introduced to Owen and his step-sister Lauren (Fabienne Therese). Lauren is your classic pissed off teen girl, angry at her mom for dragging them away from the city. Owen just plain old doesn’t speak, but we’re made to know pretty quickly that this is some kind of “tantrum” and that Owen has had behavioral problems. He’s spooky, honestly, and gets spookier up until the bad guys show up. This spookiness sets up one of the best character inversions I can recall and makes you look back at little moments with a new clarity and insight into Owen’s whole deal.

Basically, Owen is a documented head case, rating high on the “aggression scale” of potential harmful and violent behavior to himself and others. We only learn about this through cryptic hints and then after the ‘rents have been dispatched. Discovering Owen’s medical records in a box, the baddies note that the kid is going to be a handful. And this after he’s already fucked up the biggest and meanest looking of the bunch.

The violence in this movie is quick, nasty, and horrifying. Especially the violence against the family, where tension is created and maintained masterfully.

To us, Owen seems like some kind of deranged sociopath, quietly calculating how to maim and/or kill someone, perhaps anyone, in his path. For a while I thought all the little traps and weapons he was making were a sign that he was planning to kill his family, perhaps as part of his silent tantrum which his dad thinks is about the relocation. This film’s primarily conceit, however, is that Owen is not a sociopath. His silence and creepy intensity is on account of his unstated knowledge that his parents have put the family in danger. He is prepared for the bad guys to come knocking and he acts immediately when it happens, showing a competence and flair for timing that recalls stealth-based videogames which I’m sure Owen is a fan of.

Anyway, while you wait for him to behave like an emotionless little killbot, he silently displays concern, affection, and an uncompromising protective instinct for Lauren while also seeming to want to save his father, if not avenge him. Owen, in other words, isn’t a sociopath. As the bad guys look at his file, they note that it was bullies he brutalized and put in the hospital. Early in the film, there’s a creepy scene of Owen blowing a homemade dart at a spider. At a much later point, I thought about that scene and realized it was a black widow spider. There is, therefore, a steady current of Owen’s being of a protective mindset and potentially misunderstood by the doctors who dealt with him after he fucked up those bullies. Yes, he is a devious and violence-capable little moppet, but it ends up being the case that he uses those powers for good and not evil. Which is, frankly, fucking awesome. That the early, creepy scenes of Owen sharpening tacks and so on are the only indication you get that Owen knows something’s up is sort of brilliant because it is just beautiful foreshadowing in that you have to be aware of the movie as a whole, as it unfolds, to make that connection. There is very little to distract you from the immediacy of the film, which is why I call it tight.

The movie is hardly a bloodbath, but between Lauren and Owen, the bad guys get theirs and often in interesting ways. A very pleasurable part of this process is seeing how Owen is always a step ahead, especially in the final confrontation. That one stretches credulity but it’s such aHomeAlone bit that it ends up working, helped a lot by Owen’s smirk as he delivers the final blow.

More than that, though, is the way the film sets up and pays off Owen’s character. It’s really affecting when you realize he gives a shit and if he’s a monster, he’s a misunderstood and cuddly one.

Owen may well be my favorite movie character of 2012 so far.

For some added fun, I’d recommend watching this in a double bill with We Need to Talk About Kevin

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