The Slaughter Rule

In the six-man football league that exists in the rural Montana of this film, the “slaughter rule” is that if a team ever comes to be trailing by more than 45 points, the game will be called — a mercy killing, as it were.

But the point of “The Slaughter Rule” — a moody and occasionally poignant film — is that the slaughter rule doesn’t exist in real life. The protagonist says, “My father told me if I was hard enough, I wouldn’t break. He lied. Everything breaks.”

The protagonist, Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling), begins to break when his father, ironically enough, commits suicide. Days later, he is cut from his high school football team. While still quietly grieving, he is recruited to play six-man football by Gideon (David Morse), a scruffy and nearly homeless newspaper carrier who comes from Texas, where such sports are “a religion.” Roy’s best friend, an American Indian named Tracey (Eddie Spears), soon joins the team, too.

A friendship emerges between Roy and Gideon, though Roy begins to wonder, as do others in the town, if Gideon doesn’t have more on his mind than friendship. There are uncomfortable moments between them, played with extreme talent and confidence by David Morse and Ryan Gosling. The intensity of some scenes is palpable; the two actors work very well together.

The movie is scarcely about Gideon’s possible homosexuality, which begs the question what it’s doing there in the first place. The contradictory nature of male bonding — how football players will slap each other’s rear ends but shy away from a hug — is explored very briefly, and perhaps ought to have been fleshed out.

Similarly, the role of Roy’s mother is underwritten, and questions about her are left unanswered. (I don’t wish to pry, but why exactly is she shown lying naked on her bed, half-sobbing?) Clea DuVall plays Skyler, a greasy-spoon waitress who sleeps with Roy and serves as proof to the audience that he is straight; she serves virtually no other purpose — but, like Mom, she could have been a lot more.

Written and directed by twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, “The Slaughter Rule” has atmosphere to spare and a gorgeous, evocative look. It has hints of greatness, but fails to completely realize them. Morse and Gosling are excellent, but the film they appear in is less so.

B- (; R, some harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, a little violence.)