It’s a delicate thing, making a film that features a war veteran as a protagonist. Often and unsurprisingly, films that have these characters and their experiences as their central conceit tend to be rather sombre affairs, treading carefully in an attempt to authentically and respectfully portray the horrors of combat and post-war life for those who make it home. The Deer Hunter, Jacknife, Coming Home, Born On The Fourth Of July and In Country are powerful dramas that poignantly and tentatively deal with the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder, life-altering wartime injuries, and the ostracism and pitiful compensation that many veterans endure after touching down back on their native soil. A controversial and seldom-seen plot device (in most films that are taking themselves seriously, at least) is the depiction of the war vet as a dangerous, animalistic psychopath who has been driven into a state of perpetual, barely-repressed bloodlust because of his experiences. Either that or he had that psychology to begin with, and was right at home in a career awash with violence. I can certainly understand some trepidation in going down this route, but only if it’s executed with a caricatural sense of exploitation. An undervalued favourite of mine, Red White & Blue, utilises this specific depiction in a palpably human and therefore terrifying manner, but with enough nuance and multi-dimensionality that what could superficially be accused of being obnoxiously provocative is actually thought-provoking, tense, and plaintive with some serious pathos chops.
The place is Austin, Texas. Erica (Amanda Fuller) is a young woman living in a cheap boarding house, in possession of so little money that she does the daily cleaning in exchange for her bed and board. She spends virtually every night in the bars of downtown Austin, having her drinks bought by hopeful, leering men whose desires she will invariably fulfil. A lonely and dysfunctional mess, Erica engages in regular one night stands and has strict rules about never staying over, falling in love or sleeping with friends. A guarded individual with an air of passive hostility about her, she nevertheless conveys a deeply wounded interior. Life is a constant rodeo for this soul.
Erica’s living arrangements come under threat when a new boarder moves into the building, her landlady not wishing to be seen displaying undue favouritism. She needs to start paying for her accommodation, certainly no mean feat for somebody with no discernible employment history, contacts or references. In spite of her frosty demeanour, the new inhabitant makes a point of introducing himself. Nate (Noah Taylor, who most viewers will likely recognise as Locke from Game Of Thrones) is an honourably discharged former soldier and Iraq War veteran, and his staid, old-school Southern politeness contrasts with mysteriously intense and threatening body language. Feeling guilty about Erica’s newfound predicament, Nate offers to get her a job at the nearby DIY store where he works. Mistrustful of yet simultaneously intrigued by this complex, slightly weird stranger, Erica takes him up on it.
What begins as awkward, episodic small-talk and attempts to break ice slowly but surely evolves into an earnest and poignant emotional connection. Erica cares strongly for Nate in a platonic fashion, his feelings running a little deeper than that but ever respectful of her boundaries and independence. Her gratitude for his genuine display of humanity and protectiveness is sincere, but she’s not stupid, knowing full well that it is bolstered by a more psychotic side of his personality. Perhaps this is what stops her from having any romantic feelings for him, or maybe he’s just altogether not her type. Or maybe, in true altruistic fashion, she cares about him too much to let him become too heavily involved with someone as damaged as herself. A painful yet poetic possibility.
Amidst the burgeoning friendship of our two principals, the film eventually introduces us to a third character, Franki (Marc Senter). A young, impetuous, arrogant and rather annoying frontman in a local rock band, he spends his spare time tending to his cancer-stricken mother, and along with his bandmates has recently pooled together enough money to embark on a tour of Europe. Having reconnected with his estranged girlfriend and received news that his mother’s cancer is in remission, life appears to be on the up-and-up for our kid Franki. But, as always, there is a spanner in the works. Franki is actually one of Erica’s past conquests and, given the depressive recklessness that guided her existence prior to meeting Nate, she was never one for protection in her trysts. Now addled with a nasty bug, Franki is consumed by rage toward Erica and resolves to track her down and give her what for with the help of his band buddies. Of course, all of these silly boys are painfully unaware of Erica’s highly seasoned and extremely dangerous new best friend, and the cocksure swagger of these wannabe stars is about to be supplanted by an unbridled terror that they’ll never forget, if they live to be able to.
Now, I won’t sugar-coat it: this film is brutal. It is exceptionally violent, so squeamish viewers are advised to think long and hard before this one, but it’s equally important to clarify that this doesn’t fit the bill for torture porn. Far from a salacious, unlettered exercise in gore and depravity for its own sake, it is a cerebral, angry and moving illustration of loneliness, friendship, redemption and vengeance. Erica & Nate are far from perfect, and as individuals have their many respective reasons for being the last people you’d want to meet, but their relationship is believable, raw and actually quite beautiful. The human condition exists for all people, even if they are somewhat scary and unpleasant folk with disordered personalities, and the picture is mature and refreshing in its cognisance of that. There is something almost attractive in how the couple’s microcosm is reflective of the old-fashioned, backwoods parochial sentiment of ‘they’re a peaceful people, as long as they’re left alone’. These two have found solace in one another, and you’re best advised to just leave them to it.
All of this is in incredibly handled contrast to the portrayal of Franki and his bandmates. While they’re merely a group of ingenuous hotheads with big ideas and even bigger egos, they come across as more resolutely unlikeable than our deceptively emotionless heroine and her sociopathic companion. In a manner that feels spiritually evocative of Taxi Driver, the boys are archetypal of the lens through which Travis Bickle views the denizens of NYC; narcissistic, sleazy, shallow, cowardly predators. Franki’s more redeeming qualities are presented through his caring for his desperately ill mother, but outside of this, he is essentially a deluded, self-absorbed prick. Perhaps it betrays something seriously wrong with my mind, but there is a modicum of satisfaction in witnessing these bravado-pumped know-it-alls crossing paths with a Real McCoy nutcase.
An unapologetically grim experience, Red White & Blue is probably the most confrontational portrait of outsider blues you could hope to see, but it is as touching as it is forceful. With uniformly strong performances aided by Simon Rumley’s uncomfortably honest and intimate direction, it examines disaffectedness, dangerous attraction, second chances and being out of one’s depth with vigour and ferocity. While it could never be accused of being a pick-me-up, it is nevertheless enriching in a twisted, dynamic sort of way. Certainly left a strong enough impression on me, and if you think you may be able to take this one, I’d advise against passing it up.