Rage, the title card that opens Christopher R. Witherspoon’s thriller informs us, is a “violent, uncontrollable anger.” The bright red title card, though, gives way to a series of an apparently calm Portland suburb. A little too calm, perhaps. Witherspoon knows his horror movies (and, I imagine, his David Lynch), and the deserted streets are filmed as if from the point of view of a lurking serial killer in a slasher movie. The impression that something isn’t quite right, reinforced by the eerie music, is hard to shake off. Rage, though, is anything but yet another commentary on life in the paradisiac hell that is American suburbia, and if danger looms somewhere, it’s in the big city next door. Portland, Oregon, that den of iniquity and violence. (I kid, I kid.)
That’s where protagonist Dennis Twist (Rick Crawford), a thirty-something writer and teacher, is headed, to spend his day off and get his wife Crystal (Audrey Walker) a present. Or at least that’s what he tells her. What he doesn’t mention is that he’s first meeting with his mistress, the very eastern European Dana (Anna Lodej), to break up with her. Which, admittedly, goes relatively well. But somewhere along the way, Dennis somehow attracts the attention of a mysterious biker (played by Witherspoon himself), who proceeds to follow him around and play what are at first harmless pranks on him. As the biker becomes more and more threatening, though, Dennis starts wondering about the man’s identity and his motivation. Perhaps the guy is Dana’s former convict of an ex-boyfriend, out to hurt his rival. Or perhaps, Dennis muses, it’s just karma, the universe’s way of getting back at him for cheating on his wife.
Rage is, of course, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, in which a man driving a Plymouth Valiant in the California desert is relentlessly hounded by a truck and its unseen driver (Dennis’s car, like Dennis Weaver’s Plymouth, is bright red). The connection is made explicit when Dennis overhears two people discussing Duel and its symbolic meaning in a somewhat clumsy scene that’s all the more redundant because it echoes an earlier, much more interesting (and funnier) discussion between Dennis and his best friend/shrink Stan (Richard Topping). While Dennis is busy wallowing in self-pity, Stan assures him that all the bad stuff that’s been happening to him isn’t karma, “it’s bloody life.” A little forward, perhaps, but I guess that’s what you get when you routinely get plastered with your shrink.
Witherspoon’s film is a solid thriller and, as a sort of revisiting of Duel for the 21st century, nicely effective, with a few good scares (and a handful of laughs). The biker, who never takes his helmet off and remains silent throughout, exudes an aura of menace that makes Dennis’s predicament convincing when it could easily have been laughable. At the same time, there’s a sort of playful mischievousness to his early pranks that makes his crossing the line into violence, which he does suddenly and without warning, all the more horrific. There’s a very nice scene in which a terrified Dennis, having managed to escape his pursuer, finds refuge in a subterranean parking lot. There’s a long close-up of Dennis, hunched up behind the wheel of his car, illuminated by the unnatural blue light of the neon, listening intently for any sign of the biker. It goes on for the longest time, and just when you see Dennis’s face begin to relax, you hear the bike’s motor revving, a second before the bike itself appears, going down the ramp into the parking lot.
In its last third, Rage cranks up both the tension and violence, as the biker follows Dennis home and invades his private life. Witherspoon seems aware of just how over the top his story is, and revels in it. There is for instance a surprisingly bloody (and hilarious) scene involving a chainsaw and Dennis’s clueless neighbor Clancy, who was introduced at the beginning of the movie contentedly patting his potbelly on his front lawn. Not that Witherspoon can’t do serious horror: the chainsaw incident directly follows the film’s most chilling scenes, and the laughs are more than welcome.
Duel, one of the Spielberg aficionados mentions, was about an everyman facing a seemingly unstoppable force of nature. Rage is more about the stress inherent to life in the big city, in more ways than one. (The biker is basically a more focused version of the muckers of John Brunner’s science fiction classic Stand on Zanzibar.) In the end, Dennis can’t escape the biker, who pursues him even into his dreams. One may wonder whether that faceless, voiceless man isn’t simply a projection of Dennis’s pent-up frustration and anger, a doppelganger born of stress and self-pity. Witherspoon keeps you guessing until the end, and the eventual revelation of the biker’s motivation, in the film’s final minutes, thankfully doesn’t resolve everything neatly.