Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Slaughter Rule - Andrew & Alex Smith 2002

A tale of friendship between down & out coach  Gideon Ferguson (David Morse) and his reluctant protog√© quarterback Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling), The Slaughter Rule may not be the most subtle of films--first efforts seldom are--but it is an important one about manhood and the nature of courage. Certainly the best prove-you’re-a-man story set against the snowy expanses of an isolated Montana homestead in my memory.

Dealing with the spectrum of 'manliness'--from brawn to moral bravery--the Smith brothers' film takes us on a bumpy ride through the treacherous terrain of male honor before resolving itself in an unlikely moment of supervenient grace. In effecting resolution through absolution The Slaughter Rule straddles the divide between bracing subversion and sentimental kitsch. That it comes out on the side of the former and very much against the cynicism of the Zeitgeist, is a credit to the sensitivity and idealism of its young creators. 

Gosling--in the flower of fleeting youth--strikes an intriguing balance between cocky-smug and perplexed; his trademark wry superciliousness refracting but never displacing the basic vulnerability of his character. Morse gives an intense and discomfiting portrayal of the beleaguered, off-kilter couch with-a-past eking out an existence on the fringes of impoverished middle-America. A gentle giant adept at conveying tortured consciences, Morse must have relished the opportunity to channel the brittle anguish of his character.

Getting right down to it: the moral of The Slaughter Rule is that compassion trumps fear in those with heart: moral courage doesn't overcome fight-or-flight by steeling itself against vulnerability, but by exercising the strength of its own weakness. This depressive insight is often at odds with the quest for self-substantiation by the male adolescent, who readily submits to tests of fortitude and prowess while skirting the most threatening trial of all--that of assuming another's pain as his own. In showing how compassion humanizes the "enemy," The Slaughter Rule calls into question the exclusion of vulnerability that the code of masculine honor seems to mandate among jocks. By way of the crucible of masculine identification, it takes us to a place where nothing else matters but honoring the desperation of someone with no honor left. It is a story of the triumph of compassion over disgust and the redemption of unruly desire through forgiveness, yet for its duration plays like a demonstration of La Rochefoucauld's aphorism:

It is easier to love someone we hate than someone who loves us more than we want to be loved.

Roy's love-interest Skyla (Clea DuVall) remains peripheral to the heart of the story, functioning primarily to vouch for his heterosexual bone fides. Her attraction to him is mainly physical, but when things don't gel erotically to her satisfaction, she grows restless, withdraws, and eventually leaves town. Roy, who just happens to find her waiting at the bus station, casually rebuffs her half-hearted show of remorse. The Slaughter Rule is not about the mating game, in any case, but Roy's development into a fully fledged human being through his complicated friendship with Ferguson. Skyla represents the negative example of failed loyalty in a relationship based on infatuation. The test of loyalty in such relationships often amounts to a continuous overcoming of the satiety domesticated passion brings with it. Only a context not qualified by sexual dependence, yet fraught with unwanted desire and enmity, could provide the setting for the test of loyalty to which Roy is submitted.

The Slaughter Rule belongs on a long list of films dealing with the vicissitudes of love, honor, and loyalty between men (other examples: Grand Illusion, Tune's of Glory, Billy Budd, Midnight Cowboy, The Best Way to Walk, Beau Travail, and Enduring Love). Centrally or peripherally each takes up the subject of masculine self-definition--amity/emulation v. enmity--
in a more or less homosocial environment. Films like My Beautiful Laundrette, Priest, Brokeback Mountain don't fit into this category because each resolves the conflict of emulation-emnity conflict sexually, taking the feasibility of erotic fulfillment and reciprocated love for granted, while problematizing the homoerotic bond in the context of a hostile social setting, to establish a distinct thematic constellation. In The Slaughter Rule the homoerotic dimension--unwanted desire, its renunciation and forgiveness--obtains as threat to amity and compassion. In this regard it is a more tragic film than those that cross the barrier into reciprocated intimacy, and, arguably, one on a higher spiritual plane. 

The theme might also be circumscribed as the face-off between honor-based identification in a sub-culture of equals who define themselves by their manliness quotient--the self in the heroic mold-- and the taboo on tenderness that Ian Suttie* posited as the culturally contigent price of masculine individuation.  

Elements of the Plot:

Ferguson's buddy in low-life Flloyd--a diabetic who lives in a Studebaker--knows Ferguson as well as anyone. They're bound by need, including, we assume, sexual need. Flloyd resents Ferguson's fixation on Roy, while Ferguson is contemptuous of Flloyd's unselfconscious weirdness. Having strayed into their desperate lives like some innocent fool, Roy, despite rumors and their 'atypical' behavior, manages to maintain his trusting openness, getting into Flloyd's car at one point to help him inject insulin. The suicide of Roy's father may be behind his susceptibility to Ferguson's flattery, the preferred strategy of smitten souls without a prayer.

Frustrated by his unspendable passion, Ferguson assumes an exacting avuncular attitude. He takes Roy to task for indulging in a few beers, then insists on showing him the large scar running vertically along his torso. Having been 
"pickled" in utero as a result of maternal alcoholism, he has an enlarged heart. (I won't attempt to unpack the symbolism of this evocative circumstance, except to point out that the enlarged heart may be interpreted figuratively.) Begrudging Roy his closeness to Skyla, he responds with exaggerated solicitude. Roy's nonchalance angers him. He wants a sign of reciprocal election, not the trust he keeps disingenuously invoking but a guarantee that his investment won't be in vain. His need to impress on Roy the sanctity of his status as star athlete functions to emphasize the exclusive preference he would see reciprocated. The quintessential manipulator, Ferguson imagines himself the rescuer of Roy's floundering soul. He exhausts all means forcing Roy to return his love, eventually settling for his pity. That he does so with gratitude is what makes The Slaughter Rule at once up-lifting and excrutiatingly poignant.

By way of innuendo about Ferguson's involvement with a boy who met a mysterious end in a boating accident and their own increasingly intense encounters, it dawns on Roy that his overzealous mentor's feelings for him cross the line dividing friendship from madness. The beauty of the Smith's film is that Ferguson's desire is not primarily shown as lustful but as a longing directed at Roy's total person. This invests Roy with unconditional power and challenges his ability to withstand the temptation of being made absolutely essential.

It is just this elevation to essentiality that represents the test and temptation of being loved more than one wants to be. The challenge is to maintain enough distance to the obstreperous lover to preserve respect--a distance disgust threatens to annul. Just as true forgiveness draws a line under an offense and confines it to the past for the sake of the future, and not in order to move on by severing ties and effectively forgetting, so the overcoming of defensive disgust is estimable and genuine only if it enables friendship to continue. Not to end their toxic relationship by rejecting Ferguson and taking flight, but to transmute it from within, is the moral test facing Roy

The desperate nature of Ferguson's passion is fed by the dim realization that there is no going back from his all-or-nothing claim to exclusive preference to the disinterest of friendship, and no hope of consumation through sexual congress. He is condemned to being ravenous while erotically destitute, masquerading his deranged longing as paternal solicitude

Not until Ferguson lets his mask slip to reveal his turmoil does the central conflict begin to work itself out. From cautious curiosity Roy, never completely comfortable with Ferguson, turns to open disgust. 

After bandaging Roy's hand and giving him an impassioned pep-talk, things turn physical. Ferguson charges into a wall, then bullies Roy into pitting his strength against his. They lunge forward and lock shoulders like rutting bison. The display of prowess is just a pretext for Ferguson to make physical contact with his fixation, of coursePanting with exertion, he relaxes to embrace Roy, who puts up with the quasi consoling gesture until Ferguson presses his mouth against his ear as if to inhale his very being. Ferguson's ardor provokes an equally primal repudiation, with Roy breaking away to vent his rage. 

The Smiths don't recoil from showing the confusion and fear of this supremely awkward moment. Roy's rejection packs a fury to match the uncanny intensity of Ferguson's unwanted erotic fixation. 

When friends cross the line from equable reciprocity to the disequilibrium of sexual idealization, they up-end amity's disinterested balance. Only when both parties succumb and love is requited, is a new order of justice put in play--the "fairness" of love & war qua psychological state of exception. But such a truce is not in the offing for Roy and his mentor. Their only options are a complete break, renunciation, or reconciliation. The film's resolution represents a mixture of all three.

At this cross-roads things usually fall apart in “real life”--the friend who desires is repudiated and the relationship ends. But for Roy and his coach life goes on. There is no final rupture, just a series of increasingly hostile encounters. Roy's sense of loyalty is such that even Ferguson's abuse of the notion of "trust," of which he demands endless demonstrations, doesn't cause Roy to repudiate him. 

Only upon rewatching the film did the full extent of Roy's ability to over-come his discomfort with Ferguson became apparent. When Ferguson and Flloyd sing a duet in a honky-tonk Roy listens with his teammates before applauding good-naturedly. It is as if the seeds of compassion sown in Roy's encounter with the stricken deer in the opening sequence continued to germinate.

One winter night Flloyd commits suicide by asphyxiation in his Studebaker. From within a tent on a frozen lake Ferguson and Roy sprinkle his ashes through a fishing hole. Roy places a blanket around the shoulders of his shivering couch, who motions for him to join him beneath it. But Ron wants nothing to do with physical contiguity. 

The final straw comes after Ferguson calls a game in which one of his players gets injured and Roy wants to continue playing--to "give pain" by hitting back with "renegade pride." In front of the other increasingly perplexed players Ferguson calls him a punk. When Ferguson grabs him by the groin and calls him a "suger-tit" Roy brutally knocks him to the ground with his helmet. "You're a sorry-ass queer," he exclaims. As Ferguson lies pleading, Roy angrily quits the field. 

After his apparently final rejection in full view of his teammates, Ferguson trudges off into the night. Impeded at a train crossing, Roy has an epiphany, recalling the plight of the wounded deer he couldn't bring himself to euthanize. In flashback we see him lying next to it in an attitude of futile yet irresistible compassion. 

The unthinkable becomes the unavoidable: he must find Ferguson and do what he can to make amends; to put himself on the line and stay loyal in the context of Ferguson's betrayals. Roy finds Ferguson lying corpse-like in a snow-covered field, preparing to die. He revives him with blows to the chest and tender coaxing, then cradles him like some mother of sorrows.

In the final scene Roy visits a battered Ferguson in hospital and allows his hand to be placed on Ferguson's scabby forehead. An ambi-valent but powerful gesture--conveying absence of fear, absolution, departure, and most importantly, tenderness--it transposes the sordid tale of lecherous couch and star quarterback into the realm of the mytho-poetic. 

The Slaughter Rule shows that the issue at the core of masculine identity--a response to the two great exigences of a man's existence--mating and warfare--is finally less about gender than about what subsumes all polarities: the ideal of 'humanity.' Compassion tests character as much as any test of ‘mettle’ by challenging us where we are weakest, and, through the workings of fear and disgust--most contracted into our own impotence. 

Only a cynic could object to the Smith's parable, in which a simple laying-on of hands suffices to refute the self-immunizing resignation of the world-weary and absolve a defeated man. Possessing the gall but not the guile of the tendentious, it avoids sententiousness by a wide margin. 

Assuming the authority to which Ferguson's solicitude elevates him, Roy comes into his own as an agent of mercy. His gesture is 'subversive' in the way that all acts of mercy are. The question who is 'stronger'--Roy in complying or Ferguson in prompting and accepting reconciliation--probably depends on who has the most to lose. In the final analysis--the end-time in which parables are at home--the agonistic question of strength is sublated in a moment of perfect reciprocity. 

* The Origins of Love and Hate, 1933

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