In order for a boy to become a man in many primitive tribes, he must first pass through an initiation ceremony or become a warrior. One American substitute for these brutal rites of passage is high school football. It’s the best such path that seems to be available for Roy (Ryan Gosling). Which means that it’s a doubly crippling blow when, shortly after the suspected suicide of his estranged father, a local football hero, Roy gets cut from his high school football team.
Enter Gideon (David Morse). A shabby, nearly itinerant newspaper salesman by day, aspiring country crooner by night, Gideon is also a once and hopefully future football coach still living down a mysterious tragedy from years ago. To Gideon’s eyes, Roy is a “gamer”; a driven natural athlete with a golden arm whom Gideon desperately needs to quarterback his barnstorming six-man football squad, the Renegades. He eventually wears Roy down despite the latter’s suspicions about his new coach’s past and, not incidentally, his sexual orientation.
The best thing about “The Slaughter Rule,” the feature-length debut from twin brother directors Alex and Andrew Smith, is that the film refuses to succumb to the temptation of a glorious Hollywood feel-good happy ending. There’s no miraculous “Renegades rally from thirty points down in the last two minutes to win” nonsense here. The next best thing about the film is how well it captures not only the speed and savageness of six-man football, but the rural, rugged and hard scrabble Montana terrain in which it’s played as well.
Unfortunately, although “The Slaughter Rule” manages to avoid the syrupy sentimentality of, say, “Hoosiers,” it doesn’t quite know how to find its own way. Subplots come and go, winding up either only partially resolved or simply dropped altogether. The brothers Smith, for instance, introduce Roy’s requisite romantic interest in the form of the comely bartender Skyla (Clea Duvall), only to allow that subplot to wither with no sense that Roy’s learned a thing from it. Similarly, the unfortunately cliched scenes showing Roy’s ex-high school teammates as typical jock jerks again add nothing to Roy’s evolution except show us that he knows how to get his nose broken in a fight. Even the football sequences, although grittily portraying six-man’s fluidity and violence fairly well, don’t have any rhythm or sense of continuity. We never get to know Roy’s teammates, save for a few cursory scenes with his best friend, which further takes away from any emotional connection we might have with anything to do with the Renegades or their games.
The film is on more solid, if queasy ground when it comes to Gideon. Morse’s portrayal vacillates unnervingly between the coach as a compassionate man trying to instill the hard-earned wisdom he’s learned while rebuilding his own shattered life on the one hand, and a creepy old NAMBLA member on the other.
Such complexity, of course, is what the evolution from childhood to adulthood — male or female — is all about. By film’s end, there is a hint that Roy may at last be on his way. It’s just that even after watching “The Slaughter Rule,” we’re not exactly sure how he got there.