Review by Daniel Lima
The fantasy of the middle-aged man forced into action to protect the virtue of young women serves as evergreen fodder for scores of thrillers, both high-octane and cheap. Ruthless is a picturesque example of the latter, shaggy even by the standards of cheap thrillers, only memorable in how it completely squanders the few good things it has going for it.
It falls on Dermot Mulroney to play the familiar archetype, here a wrestling coach getting over the rape and murder of his daughter. Noticing bruises on a young student, he ends up getting involved in her home life and soon finds himself in a criminal scheme that only a man with a particular set of skills can unravel.
To his credit, Mulroney actually has a good handle on the material, walking the line between a gruff, direct man who doesn’t know how to handle his grief and a loving father with an ironclad conscience. Where many leads in this kind of film are wooden and completely unemotive, in him, you see a man who struggles with saying the right thing at the right moment, who is able to take charge of a room without anyone else noticing, and when push comes to shove is genuinely frightening. It’s an uncommonly layered performance with a good amount of range.
Unfortunately, that’s the only good thing to be said about Ruthless.
A certain amount of shagginess on a low-budget production is expected, but this is a film where everything seems to drag for far longer than it ought to. Conversations are circular, with characters repeating themselves to each other for minutes at a time. Dead air exists between lines of dialogue, lacking any charge or tension, even in scenes with an immediate threat. The entire ensemble, except the star, seems to be figuring out their lines as they say them, adding to the complete lack of atmosphere. For a film about such weighty, dark subject matter, there is a lack of texture that seems almost deliberate.
As bad as all this is, the main issue is the lack of propulsive energy. This film hews closely to genre conventions, and it signposts every belabored narrative turn so that the audience is never for a moment unsure of how things will play out. That could work on some base level, but as low energy and sluggish as every scene is, it makes for an utterly baffling and excruciating watch. The viewer doubtlessly knows every single narrative beat, yet the story crawls forward at such a slow pace that one might fool themselves into thinking that there might be some wild subversion. In the empty space that fills the runtime, it’s easy to imagine that there might be something more just around the corner. Alas, that subversion never arrives.
Ruthless, then, is best described as cinematic water torture. Like a person held in bondage, anxiously awaiting the next cold drop that splashes onto their brow, so does this film dole out every cliche of this erstwhile subgenre, at just the right pace to be absolutely maddening. With so many great alternatives to choose from and even more mediocre offerings, why watch something so bad?
Ruthless is available on VOD December 15.