Another day, another brooding, plotting, and bloody revenge film. Well-tread to the point of numbness, violent retribution plays can be bear traps for young filmmakers attempting to forge new ground. Simon Rumley's vicious Red White & Blue may be the one recent exception that gets it right, engaging with the cost of revenge in a striking animalistic narrative where ferocity is both subtle and blunt in equal measure. Such complexity doesn't exist in Chris Faulisi and Matt Robinson's A Proper Violence, a terribly confused examination of moral comeuppance that fails to even interestingly establish the standard expectations of the genre. There's absolutely no fresh perspective here; just more juiceless samplings of what's already been cooked to death.
Morgan (Randy Spence), an unassuming ex-con trying to reconnect the world around him, wanders through life like a ghost. He attempts to fit in with the small-town local color, but can't move past the pleasantries of most conversations because of his reputation as a sex offender. When a masked intruder, guns blazing, suddenly breaks into his apartment guns, Morgan is mostly surprised, not realizing this may be a great big sign his storied past has returned for payback. Meanwhile, Shephard (Justin Morck) and Rich (Shawn Mahoney), the respective brother and husband of the woman (Bev Lauchner) Morgan raped years before, plan to lure him into the forest under the false pretenses of a friendly camping trip in order to exact some frontier justice.
Shepard and Rich's logic is about as flawed as one would expect from a film about regular people plotting bad deeds, predetermining a tragic ending from square one. A Proper Violence's barebones screenplay makes it a point to minimize dialogue during the scenes in the forest, which is a good idea in theory. But the character's banter comes in the form of small and stylistic bursts of verbiage, more grunts of aggression than actual coherent sentences. As a result, their intense motivations never develop beyond the surface. Rich is simply the vengeful loose canon, while Shepard fulfills his duty as the story's stock coward. Morgan mostly watches the group of amateurs bicker back and forth from the fringes of the frame, never catching on to the warnings smacking him in the face. This has to be the most obviously foreshadowed murder setup the movies have seen in years.
The film elevates even the smallest dramatic beat like it was the end of the world. The inherent tension of the film's climax in the woods feels forced upon the viewer, contrived around a stale template of revenge rather than anything substantive. There's no room for these characters to evolve in the world of A Proper Violence—only to die badly. Randy Spence's nicely reserved performance balances an internal rage with outward timidity. When Rich taunts Morgan by the campfire ("You look like a guy with crazy stories," he says), Spence's contorting facial expressions catch a glimmer of both personas in one shot. Ultimately, Morgan is cornered and forced to fight back, and the gory outcome makes little sense in terms of his character. It proves that all along the filmmaker's intent has been to drop bodies nonsensically rather than get at the psychological core of the violence.
Thematically, A Proper Violence lands on a familiarly proper denouement: revenge isn't black and white, but gray. We get it. Now what? Evan Glodell's flawed but incendiary Bellflower at least has the balls to complicate the answers to these questions by welding distrusting cinematic aesthetics with fractured narrative storytelling devices. The filmmakers behind A Proper Violence could care less about such things. If the press notes are any indicator (the opening line reads, "A Proper Violence is destined to launch many promising careers!"), these guys and gals have already moved on to their next indulgent crime scene. Hollywood, here they come!