"Rites of Passage" is a finely tuned psychological thriller that does more than just keep our stomachs tightened for an hour and a half. This story of a father and his two sons being held at the whim of a convict is more than that, digging deep into its characters to give the story a much richer complexity and intrigue. As far as thrillers go, I was breathless; as far as human dramas go, I was hooked.
The film introduces us to Del Farraday (Dean Stockwell) and his son D.J. (Robert Keith), who run into one another in a San Francisco hotel. In hopes that he might quiet any objections his son may have about seeing his father with another woman, the two venture to the family lakeside cabin for a weekend of bonding. That is, until they arrive and realize that Campbell (Jason Behr), the youngest son, is also there, and immediately we get the feeling that there is bad blood between father and son.
As it turns out, it goes back years ago, when Del caught Campbell giving his heart to another boy by the name of Billy, and lost himself in rage. The two have had no contact for months at a time, so it comes as no surprise that when Del reveals his affair with another woman, an argument ensues. But any and all arguments are cast aside when two strangers arrive, who turn out to be escaped felons, one of whom has a connection to Campbell's lost Billy, and with whom Campbell has an agenda.
To reveal any more will ruin the plot's many twists and turns, though not so much the thriller ones as the emotional ones. This is one well-crafted film from Victor Salva, the director of "Powder." His work on that project and his work here prove his worth as a filmmaker in that he can do so much with a large budget film, and take material such as this and turn it into solid entertainment with a minimal budget.
Salva's most winning aspect of this film is his attention to the emotions of his characters, particularly Campbell, whose homosexuality fuels most of what's going on in the plot. Campbell is given the typical emotions of someone who feels empty and lonesome, but under the powerful performance of Jason Behr, these emotions are so impacting and believable that they add so much to the overall effect of the film. Salva is also careful not to turn the film into a coming-out story, but more of a story about coming to terms.
The father/son examination this film partakes is simply stunning. This human drama unfolds very effectively as Campbell and his father, played in a winning performance from Dean Stockwell, must come to terms with one another, what has happened in the past, and what is going on as they find themselves in danger. There is always some measure of loyalty that each holds for the other, and the film portrays that loyalty in such a light that nothing could ever shake it.
Another good aspect is the way in which Salva allows the psychological drama to play on those emotions. One of the escaped felons, Frank (James Remar), plays on Campbell's childhood memories of his father's disdain for him, using it as a tool to win him over and keep him loyal. Remar pushes the envelope with his witty and chilling performance, and to watch the interaction between he and Behr in the most intense moments will keep you on the edge of your seat.
While it is most definitely an unknown film, "Rites of Passage" will be remembered by those who see it. It not only winds the chord of suspense until the knot in your stomach is unbearable, but it gives us characters whose emotions we can identify with and understand. These emotions come out through some very strong performances, and some very provocative directing. I got so much more from this film than I expected, and hold it up as one of the best human dramas of recent years.