LIVE FREE OR DIER
Two "Seinfeld" writers are the unexpected source of this independent comedy-drama set in a small-town New Hampshire down the road apiece from Hell. Filmed in Claremont but taking place in fictional Rutland, the film's Granite State setting is no twinkly New England tourist village where Bostoners come to view foliage, but instead a place of gravel pits, spoiled clams, utilitarian sex with the available stock of whoever's there, and a burning for anything the least bit transcendent, even notoriety. Had co-writer/directors Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin turned toward melodrama, this would have been just one more mini-budget neo-noir like a hundred others on Cinemax. But with an expert ear for the braggadocio of a bullied sneak-thief trying to present himself as badass, they reap sympathy for someone hard to sympathize with--getting there without having to spell it out via some local counselor explaining the guy's childhood to the cops. For all its slow-moving slackness and its lack of visual click, Live Free or Die manages to be poignant without even being maudlin. And darned if Steve Buscemi wouldn't have played the lead role ten years ago.
The young Steve Buscemi here is Aaron Stanford, virtually unrecognizable from the mutant villain Pyro of the X-Men movies. His wildly misnamed John "Rugged" Rudgate is a dart-eyed, chain-smoking weasel in a toboggan cap, who after scoring five blank diplomas from a trucking school charging $4,000 tuition, doesn't have the juice to get more than a lousy $120 for the bunch. He sells "stolen" stereo speakers from the back of his rusty van-in truth, simply buying and reselling legitimately but telling customers they're stolen in order to give himself a rep. But after watching his brakes constantly fail and his attempts to get by on rebate coupons, you somehow find yourself pitying a guy who steals quarters from a countertop children's-charity campaign. Without even trying to make the guy look good, the filmmakers have you feeling for someone so young who has no hope, no prospects, no future, who spends his days deluding himself and others just to keep from sinking into despair.
The picaresque plot involves Rugged and a barely non-mentally-challenged old classmate (Paul Schneider, an affecting young Will Farrell) who, with his dour sister (Zooey Deschanel), has inherited a storage center. Rugged's pathetic, last-desperate-chance attempt at conning his slow-witted friend for a security job is heartbreaking despite the conniving. The filmmakers add to the mix a police chief (Kevin Dunn) and his deputy (an engagingly tentative and haunted Michael Rapaport), a scummy hardware-store owner (Judah Friedlander of "30 Rock"), a lanky lawn guy with delusions of Ultimate Wrestling (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and a hero-worshipping kid (Peter Anthony Timbakis) whose closing and opening voiceover narrations are deliberately yet annoyingly written as a barely articulate string of f-word adjectives.
That kid unfortunately gets stuck with the kind of freeze-frame voiceover where the narrator says, "You're probably wondering how this came to be. Well, that's where our story begins...." I understand the filmmakers trying to evoke a tall-tale atmosphere for a story about lies and legends, but that particular effort is as cheesy and pedestrian as a stroll through Wisconsin. But none of the movie's flaws negate its many remarkable little performances and casually insightful script.