The Riot Act is Masks and Masks and an Attempt at Social Justice and More Masks

WTF is The Riot Act?

The Riot Act is an indie period thriller from writer/director Devon Parks that’s partly a revenge narrative, and partly a debate about how to challenge despotism in a small town. Taking inspiration from a real murder at the King Opera House in 19th century Van Buren, Arkansas, the film follows two outcasts as they attempt to bring a wealthy murderer to justice by any means necessary.

Vigilante number one is Allye, the daughter of the film’s main villain, Pearrow. In the film’s prologue, Pearrow murders Allye’s lover before the two of them can leave town, causing Allye to flee alone. A few years later, she returns with a troupe of vaudeville performers and discovers that Pearrow not only avoided any jail time for the murder, but routinely spins it into a story of personal tragedy to gain sympathy from the town.

The only other person who knows about the murder is vigilante number two, a theatre foreman named August who was hired to clean up the scene. He also has firsthand knowledge that Pearrow, a respected doctor, gives second-rate care to the poor.

Once Allye and August recognize each other, they team up to punish Pearrow for his crimes, wear a lot of masks, and have an awkward romance in the cellar.

The part where the masked vigilantes have different ideas of justice

Definitely, the most interesting thing about this movie is the tension between Allye and August’s ideas of revenge. They both want Pearrow to pay for what he’s done, and resent that he keeps getting rewarded for acting like an asshole (I feel them on this). The solution Allye proposes is really simple: she wants to kill Pearrow and end his petty reign of terror. August, on the other hand, wants to dress up in scarecrow mask and stare at Pearrow until Pearrow feels uncomfortable.

There’s a high-minded explanation for how August’s performance art is going to force Pearrow to confront his own darkness and Learn a Lesson about what a terrible person he is, but it still boils down to stalking someone in a mask. It’s creepy when he does it, but it doesn’t achieve very much, partly because the core set of rules August follows provide that Pearrow must never be physically harmed, directly confronted about his wrongdoing, or otherwise challenged in any way that could disrupt the power dynamics in the town. It’s a revenge plot where the person they’re taking revenge on is both literally and figuratively untouchable, and the wealthy, powerful men in Van Buren can all just pretend it’s not happening.

To a certain extent, the film seems to buy into the idea that being stalked by August is a fate worse than death, but what’s interesting is that we also don’t see that it helps anyone. Pearrow feels a bit sorry to be estranged from his daughter (whom he can no longer control), but he doesn’t exhibit any signs of being a better person. If he’s tormented by shame and remorse over his past actions, that doesn’t translate into suddenly having a conscience. In fact, the film goes out of its way to show us that he keeps abusing his power, bullying his staff, mistreating the poor, and being racist. In fact, because August works for Pearrow, we start to see a dynamic where Pearrow is mean to August during the day, and then August anonymously trolls him at night. It’s the kind of thing that might make August feel more powerful in the moment, but isn’t doing anything to stop Pearrow from hurting people in the meantime.

The mask plan is ultimately – and maybe appropriately – a carnival tradition, where the little people play at disrespecting authority figures for a few hours, but ultimately go back to being subservient again. It releases pent-up tension without mounting a serious challenge to existing hierarchies.

In other words, it’s the way people rebel when they’re scared to destabilize things. The outcome is just that Pearrow has to feel creeped out now and then while he still does whatever he wants.

The cool thing is that that is on purpose

If this were a movie about August’s awesome plan to push back on the social order by not pushing back on it at all, it would be annoying – but, thankfully, that’s not what we get. The saving grace of The Riot Act is that Allye never seems convinced by August’s arguments, and offers a consistent, and consistently contrasting point of view.

Without being a symbolism nerd, it’s worth noting that, of all the characters we meet, Allye is the only one who actually can touch Pearrow — the one he cares about, the one who defies him, the one who literally does put her hands on him, and the one who’s only wearing a mask so she can get close enough to kill him. If August is a conformist disguising himself as a dissident, Allye is a true rebel, capable of making sudden, radical change.

That’s a really interesting contrast, and its what fuels the best scenes in the movie, including the climax.

The less cool thing is that there is no sense of urgency

Considering that this is a low-budget indie movie, I’m not really going to come onboard it for things like weird lighting and not having extras in the brothel (though, wow, that was an unpopular brothel).

The one thing I do hold against it, from a story standpoint, is that there isn’t a strong sense of urgency to most of what happens. August seems content to keep trolling Pearrow for the rest of time, and it’s not clear what would constitute success from his perspective, so his side of the story is creepy but moves pretty slow.

Allye’s side of the story is a bit stronger. Though it’s still not clear why she needs to kill Pearrow right now as opposed to any other time, we at least know what being killed looks like, so we can tell whether she’s making progress or not (though she doesn’t make progress for most of the film).

I still think there’s an interesting dynamic at the core

I actually have more to say about August’s plan and how far the film suggests he’s willing to go to avoid harming Pearrow, but I’d have to spoil the final scenes in order to talk about it.

Without doing that, I think there’s a good narrative here about how not every act of defiance leads toward meaningful change, and not everybody defiant actually wants to rock the boat. It’s not perfect, and it’s not tidy, and viewers can make up their own minds about whether the film thinks August is braver than I do, but there’s something meaningful there.

Image: The Riot Act; Hannover House | October 10, 2019