A girl walks into a bar, scans the dimly lit social skyline, and zeroes in on a group of young men playing pool. She makes eye contact with one of them, smiles flirtatiously, and through the magic of editing and montage, jumps into their world. What follows is a free-for-all party train that ends back at one of the men’s house, culminating in a four-way sexual encounter.
This opening sequence to Simon Rumley’s alluring Red White & Blue stands out not because of the scandalous physical escalation, but because the imagery unfolds drained of all ambient sound. Rumley frames this key sequence with only a stripped-down piano score, allowing the force of each intimate look, touch, and smile to reverberate with gripping potency. While tonal specificity remains up in the air at this point, the series of instinctual decisions immediately establishes the America of Red White & Blue as an unhinged, throbbing landscape of equal parts visceral thrills and emptiness.
It’s not initially clear whether Erica (Amanda Fuller), the damaged young woman at the center of the film, uses her sexuality as therapy or weaponry. But Rumley makes Erica’s diverse nightly encounters with different men the center of attention early on, focusing intently on the act itself devoid of seduction, foreplay, or small talk. This is pure physicality, and Erica’s coldness to her male lovers only gets challenged when she meets Nate (Noah Taylor), an Iraq war vet staying at the same motel. Theirs is a silent relationship founded on glances, profile views, and kindness. Erica even asks Nate, “Why are you being nice to me?” He replies with an absurdly strange story about his past acts of animal cruelty and love that ends up providing the devastating dual metaphor for the entire film.
If the first half of Red White & Blue is dominated by transcending the hollowness of sexual warfare, then the sudden plot shift midway through marks the beginning of a far more devastating focus on physical violence. Rumley cuts away from the flowering but restrained romance between Erica and Nate, focusing on the life of Franki (Marc Senter), one of the men from Erica’s initial encounter. Franki plays in a band, tends to his cancer-stricken mother, and hangs out with his friends, until one day he learns that he’s HIV-positive. As with every dramatic turn in Red White & Blue, tragic news like this comes fast and furious, but lingers on characters’ faces with deep impact. Rumley uses this plot device to interlock the two different stories, sending the film down the road of outrage, panic, and finally diabolical retribution.
As an unnerving pulse on various modes of revenge, Red White & Blue manages to instill a building sense of dread as its characters mentally and physically disintegrate before our eyes. Damning flaws abound, especially the bombastic techno music that accompanies late scenes of conflict, and the diverting middle section, which unfairly rips the viewer away from Taylor and Fuller’s magnetic performances and heavily leans on the less developed character of Franki, a whiney cliché of jilted American youth who can’t match the dramatic intensity of his surroundings.
Still, Rumley upends all expectations with a devastatingly bloody final set piece that reveals Nate to be a true wolf in sheep’s clothing. In one way or another, torture becomes the film’s grounding reality, no matter if it’s the agonizingly slow death of disease or the pinpoint calculation of crushing physical pain. Either way, Red White & Blue paints an American mosaic with sudden strokes of terrifying revelation contrasting somber moments of regret. For these characters, the devil is no longer an imaginary entity, but a seductive glance, a piercing moral question, and a burning photograph, and all slice just as deep as any razor-sharp knife.
Red White & Blue is available from IFC Midnight on VOD until 12/22/10.