Inspired by a real-life incident during which the U.S. military accidentally released nerve gas onto a civilian sheep ranch, Rage offers an unusual spin on the ’70s vigilante picture. Instead of seeking revenge against criminals, the film’s lead character attacks anyone and everyone associated with an accident that claimed the life of his young son.
George C. Scott, who also marked his feature directorial debut with this picture (having previously helmed the 1970 television play The Andersonville Trial), stars as Dan Logan, a Wyoming sheep rancher and widower. One evening, Dan camps on his ranch with his preteen son, Chris (Nicolas Beauvy); Chris sleeps outside while Dan slumbers in a tent. When Dan wakes the next morning, Chris is bleeding from the nostrils, convulsing, and unconscious. Meanwhile, many of Dan’s sheep are dead or dying. Dan rushes Chris to a nearby hospital and summons his family physician, Dr. Caldwell (Richard Basehart). Before Caldwell arrives, two other medical professionals—Dr. Holliford (Martin Sheen) and Dr. Spencer (Barnard Hughes)—assume control over the Logans, separating father and son while examining Dan for symptoms. Turns out the Logans were exposed to an experimental nerve agent, and Holliford and Spencer are government operatives tasked with keeping the incident quiet. When Chris dies, Holliford and Spender persuade Caldwell to hide the truth from Dan until an “appropriate” time. Sensing that he’s being manipulated, Dan escapes from his hospital room, slips into the morgue, and discovers Chris’ body. Then he snaps, unleashing death and destruction on his enemies.
Although Scott’s direction is far from perfect, given the presence of bizarre slo-mo flourishes and a distasteful focus on cruelty to animals, the basic story is powerfully simple. Not only is the nerve-gas incident frightening, the ensuing government crackdown is wholly believable. And if Dan’s skill at gathering resources while evading capture sometimes seems a bit far-fetched, it’s useful to remember that a fugitive could hide from public view with greater ease in the days before cellphones and the Internet.
Rage has its share of unintentionally funny moments, a hazard common to movies that try to sustain an unrelentingly grim tone, but Scott is 100 percent the right guy for the job, at least in front of the camera. Playing an unsophisticated everyman who needs medical jargon translated into plain English, Scott credibly personifies the murderous anger that would fill any parent’s heart under the circumstances. Similarly, Hughes and Sheen (who later played father and son in the 1988 drama Da) capture the chilly efficiency of men who place the needs of the state over the rights of individuals. Holding this taut little picture together is a fantastic score by Lalo Schifrin, who keeps the tension flowing from the deceptively peaceful opening scenes to the bitterly tragic finale.