SXSW 2012 Movie Review: 'The Aggression Scale'


Horror fans are well-versed in the "home invasion" sub-section of the horror shelves these days, and even without classics like Wait Until Dark and Straw Dogs we'd still have plenty of recent reminders like Them, The Strangers, and (of course) the remake of Straw Dogs. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Film festivals and horror shelves are all but awash with thrillers in which a safe place is invaded by mysterious invaders with malicious intent. Being lost in the woods is one kind of scary; having your safe little home attacked by murderers is a different story altogether.

Rooted firmly in the home invasion territory is Steven Miller's The Aggression Scale, which is certainly one of the more outrageously violent examples of the sub-genre you're likely to come across. But by this point we'd probably need a little more than a bad attitude and a lot of blood to make this concept feel just a little fresh or exciting. Fortunately the screenplay by Ben Powell does have an ace up its sleeve, and it's a simplistically enjoyable one to boot: yes, we have an isolated house in which an innocent family is being attacked by a gang of brutal criminals -- but that family has a "problem child," you see, and well, let's just say this kid is the horror flick answer to Home Alone. The mute and frankly unpleasant Owen has a history of violent behavior, but he's about to unleash a massive can of carnage on the invaders who are attacking his family.

Even at its most familiar, The Aggression Scale has a raw edge and relatively unpredictable approach to a well-traveled story, and even if you only take it on the surface level -- as a decidedly ferocious cat-and-mouse thriller -- there's just enough of a spark to make all the running, chasing, hiding, and desperate physical altercations feel a little bit fresh. Third feature from horror geek Miller (and second for Powell), the film doesn't deliver a ton that's all that unique, aside from the novelty of seeing a young kid fight back against bloodthirsty thugs and protect his older sister, but there's certainly a rough edge and a smooth flow to The Aggression Scale that makes the slightly familiar trappings feel a little more exciting. 

As the silent little avenger, young Ryan Hartwig brings an off-kilter intensity and a small sense of mystery to his anti-heroic character, and Dana Ashbrook makes for a smoothly hateful head villain. Genre fans will no doubt appreciate the small contributions from horror guys Derek Mears and Ray Wise, and it's nice to note that adorable newcomer Fabianne Therese presents at least one character in the film who is worthy of a little sympathy. (Make no mistake; this is a dark-hearted and considerably nasty thriller.) Whether there's any depth or subtext to any of this ultra-violent mayhem ("the sins of the father will be avenged by a psycho kid," perhaps?) is up to the individual viewer, but taken as simply a tough-as-nails indie stalk / chase / revenge thriller, The Aggression Scale is sort of a low-budget ass-kicker.


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