The last film to portray small town America so unflinchingly was probably The Wrestler (2008). This is a place where community has more or less broken down and alienation is a way of life. The Last Picture Show (1971) captured the decline of small town life in the 1950s; films like Red, White and Blue attest to its further deterioration since then.
The plot is minimal: Erica, an emotionally damaged twentysomething, engages in endless casual sex to numb the pain of her existence, until she strikes up a close platonic friendship with Nate, a veteran of the Iraq war who has drifted into town. But when one of Erica’s casual flings, Franki, discovers he has contracted HIV from Erica, he abducts her, spurring Nate to exact terrible, bloody vengeance.Rumley has spoken about Red, White and Blue as being a commentary on American culture: “It seems nothing was learnt from Vietnam and there are lots of countries, but particularly America, that seem to have violent knee-jerk reactions to situations, so it was a comment on that.”
Noah Taylor’s Nate is an ambiguous figure in this respect. Gentle, patient and protective of Erica, but when it comes to avenging her mistreatment by Franki and his friends, Nate’s propensity for sadistic violence is released and he shows no mercy. Rumley is careful to portray Franki as a gentle and empathetic character too. He lives with his mother who has had cancer, holds dreams to be a rock star and has a steady girlfriend whom he is respectful towards. When he learns that Erica has given him HIV he initially reacts understandingly. Tragically he tries to connect to Erica and even proposes marriage. When she rejects him however his response gradually turns to violence.Because Rumley invests empathy into his characters (structuring the film very specifically so that we follow Erica first then switch attention to Frank before centring on Nate) Nate’s vengeance on Frank in particular becomes alienating in itself, ultimately making the violence futile. Nate becomes an emblem of America, or at least of violence within American culture (he even wears a stars and stripes on the back of his cut-off). The violent streak within him has partly been inculcated by the army (as with the Paddy Considine character in Dead Man’s Shoes) but there is also despair at the heart of his blue collar existence, a sense that violence is all he has left. Erica, too, is aimless and suffered abuse as a child at the hands of her stepfather (a common movie code for degenerate underclass behaviour). Even Franki, who at first seems well adjusted, despairs at his life and feels alienated from other people.
The violence in Red, White and Blue therefore is disturbing but we are never encouraged to view the characters as debased or degraded, and we don’t feel demeaned or degraded by watching it. We do not share the glee with which Nate carries out his punishment but we understand how emotionally dead inside he has become to act the way he does.
Simon Rumley more than fulfils the promise of The Living and the Dead in this film; he has a Wim Wenders-like eye for America, but with a rather harsher outlook. All the iconography is there: the diners, the bars, the Texas landscape, but Rumley makes it look bleak, with very little of the enchantment of Paris Texas (1984).
The ending too, is quietly devastating; a simple scene with Noah Taylor alone by a campfire looking at a photograph of himself and Erica. But it says everything about the futility of love in such a bleak emotional environment.