'Red 11': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Robert Rodriguez
Useful as a textbook exercise, but hardly more than that.

Robert Rodriguez unveils a flick he made for $7,000 while working on the mega-budget effort 'Alita: Battle Angel.'

Don't you have to be a master before you get to teach master classes? Multihyphenate filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has been a jack of many cinematic trades, from directing down to gaffing, but even many fans might admit he's a master of none.

Still, the class/premiere event billed by SXSW as "The Robert Rodriguez Film School" had a worthy aim: to prove to the would-be filmmakers in the crowd that they needn't wait for others to finance their dreams, but should instead just grab a camera and make a movie already.

The DIY evangelist's 1995 book Rebel Without a Crew was, for a time, an inspirational text on par with the several books Spike Lee published about his own indie origin story. But the digital revolution made many details obsolete and, in Rodriguez's opinion, today's aspirants need to be shown as well as told. So around a quarter-century after he made a Sundance-lauded film, El Mariachi, for a reported $7,000, he decided to do it again, this time with a documentary crew recording the feat. He challenges others to play by the rules he set for himself: seven grand; only one assistant allowed (though any actor on set can be repurposed as ad hoc crew); 14 days to make the thing.

The result is Red 11, a thriller inspired by one of the filmmaker's oldest story ideas, which in turn was based on his own experience making El Mariachi: He raised money for the film by enrolling in medical studies, where human guinea pigs get paid for testing experimental drugs.

Here the Rodriguez stand-in is Rob (Roby Attal), a filmmaker who borrowed cash for a project only to learn his lender was a Mexican drug cartel. He needs to come up with $7,000, and fast, so he accepts a weeklong stay at a medical lab. He may never get out.

Patients here are color-coded, with their shirts indicating what kind of drugs they're testing — red-shirts are on a drug meant to speed healing, which means they have little chunks of their flesh cut out. Ick. The movie has a bit of anthropological fun here, observing how different groups share common spaces but socialize only with their own kind. A jerk in the teal group ruins one of the facility's few pleasures: When bored patients get caught up watching a film from the site's DVD collection, he drops in to spoil the ending for them.

Another patient, nicknamed Score (Alejandro Rose-Garcia, an Austin musician who performs as Shakey Graves), carries an iPad around with synth software, practicing to be a composer for movies. He composes character themes for the young people around him and contributes mood music when scenes get tense; this self-referential comic relief is the pic's most enjoyable ingredient.

But as the film reveals its actual plot, in which (surprise, surprise) the drug-testers turn out to be doing something sinister downstairs, Red 11 gets increasingly muddled, a mess of hallucinations and conspiracy theories that is not served well by the dialogue's cute references to Shutter Island and Jacob's Ladder. Score and Rob are joined by an unnamed, magenta-clad lab rat (Lauren Hatfield). Though their adventure gives Rodriguez several opportunities to show how stunts and bits of FX can be done convincingly with nearly no money, dull dialogue scenes remind us there's more to entertainment than syringes in eyeballs. To be fair, Rodriguez was not setting out to make a movie that merited theatrical release. But the biggest lesson Red 11 teaches is an inadvertent one: Even a scrappy, seat-of-the-pants production needs a good script.

Production company: Double R
Cast: Roby Attal, Lauren Hatfield, Carlos Gallardo, Alejandro Rose Garcia, Rebel Rodriguez, Racer Rodriguez, Eman Esfandi, Steven Brudniak, Brently Heilbron, Pierce Foster Bailey
Director-director of photography-editor-production designer-costume designer-casting director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenwriters-producers: Robert Rodriguez, Racer Rodriguez
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)

83 minutes