I would consider myself a fan of Lucky McKee. This is the writer/director that brought forth some of the more engaging horror films of the 2000s, including May, The Woods, and Roman. He's the type of director I like to see do well in the industry because he genuinely cares about the collaborative aspect of filmmaking. He surrounds himself with a talented cast and crew and remains loyal to those he really worked well with. Angela Bettis, for example, has collaborated with him on four projects, including a jump from actress to director in the role-reversal scenario of Roman. However, McKee seems to be struggling to actually break into the studio system. His film The Woods went from being so protected and cherished M. Night Shyamalan had to change his film title to The Village to being dumped straight to DVD with all special features erased from the disc. More unnerving is his role in the 2008 drama Red.
The short version is this: about halfway through filming, McKee was removed as director of the film and replaced with Trygve Allister Diesen. Rumors of tension between producers and director abounded over the web and it was unknown how much or little of Red would actually be taken from McKee's filming. Thankfully, the finished project not only bares his credit but a clear indication of his influence on the production.
Red, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, is the story of Avery Ludlow, a kind old man whose best friend in the world is his dog Red. One day, while fishing, a group of teenagers attempt to rob him at gunpoint and eventually shoot Red at point-blank range to punish the old man. Avery decides to seek an apology from the boys, but it seems their families have a bit too much power and skill at lying for him to resolve the issues in a civilized manner.
McKee's fingerprints are all over this film and have never been used to greater effect. Instead of exploiting the violence against Red, the film focuses on the interactions between characters. The dialog moves at a natural pace with realistic responses. There is no overacting even when the film should be reaching made-for-TV level histrionics. The film is natural. McKee's skill as a director lies not in an innovative vision, but execution so believable that any last act twist or turn he can toss at you feels like the only conclusion. This is not meant to downplay the abilities of Diesen as a director. Obviously, replacing someone on a film shoot is a difficult position to be in and the fact that the film comes off as cohesive as it does is a testament to both directors' capabilities.
The cast is a great mix of veterans and newcomers that work well off of each other. Brian Cox, as Avery, would have been in consideration for the Best Actor Oscar if this was a higher budgeted film with a wider theatrical release. His performance is likable and gruff at the same time. This is a beautiful portrait of a man who loses everything he has yet still chooses to be a good outstanding citizen. As the trio of wayward teens, Noel Fisher, Kyle Gallner, and Shiloh Fernandez accurately portray the dynamics of a group of young people knowingly acting out just because they can. From the remorseless ringleader (Noel Fisher) to the reluctant whipping boy (Kyle Gallner) to the thrill-seeker (Shiloh Fernandez), the commitment to realism in their rebellious mindset makes the circumstances of the film all the more disturbing. Also noteworthy is Robert Englund as one of the fathers, riding on the coattails of the richer family to upgrade his home at the price of silence.
The only thing that seems to be out of place in the film is the score. It's a bit too predictable for this type of film. It's almost like someone wanted a very standard score for a thriller that didn't actually watch the film. The film is quieter than that, more subtle. It did not require pounding music cues and sudden bursts of melodramatic orchestrations to get its point across.
The line of believability is blurred when the action sequences begin. As far as I'm concerned, all of the major stunt set-pieces of the film could have been achieved with a very light hand and crafty editing like the murder of Red. However, the film jumps from nuanced drama to explosive action film and back again all throughout the climax. This film didn't need all the bells and whistles of your standard high-octane thriller and the ending suffers for it. It's not that these big scenes aren't well-executed; they are simply out of place in what could have been a quiet, powerful film.
Red is an upsetting film in the best way possible. It's very easy to grow attached to Avery, making the entire arc of the story that much more important. If you are in the mood for a well-acted drama with clean execution, Red is a great choice.