When you start your movie with an autopsy, with the coroner listing the scars he sees covering the professional athlete’s body, you know you’re not watching “Slapshot.”
When the first scenes, at home, include neglected, frozen puppies and a brother who dies — of a heart attack — at 17 — a “Walk the Line” pall is introduced that “Goalie” never shakes.
This is a hockey tragedy, forlorn and somber, sentimental and in just a couple of rare moments, funny. The filmmakers were aiming for a “Bang the Drum Slowly” on ice, a “Brian’s Song” on skates — funereal, without much in the line of levity. And even if they don’t come close to pulling that off in this uneven dirge, you have to appreciate the sentiment and the effort.
Terry Sawchuck was a goalie, one of the great ones from an era when Hockey was strictly a cold-weather cities sport played by tough guys who didn’t wear helmets, and only slowly came around to the idea of masks for goaltenders.
Director and co-writer Adriana Maggs sees the Winnepeg-born Sawchuck as a prairie poet, a stoic two-fisted child of poverty who bottled-up his emotions, self-medicated with alcohol who reveals his true soul only in interior monologues.
Hockey players race up and down the rink, but “what (solitary) goalies know is side to side…They sit apart, like saints, in bars.” The ice? “This is my only home.”
Mark O’Brien (“Arrival,” “Ready or Not”) plays Sawchuck as a man who struggled with demons in a generation that didn’t get often get help, didn’t let itself cry and was most comfortable expressing itself through lashing out. Like many a child of The Depression, he lived with a deep, barely-hidden depression.
That grim childhood has factory-worker dad (Ted Atherton) warning that “This winter, we’ll be burning the floorboards to stay alive.” Older boy Mitch has his hockey dreams sacrificed to that life. Terry is sensitive, scarred by his brother’s premature death and the callous calculus that keeps them warm and alive, but leaves his beloved dog outside to give birth in 50 below snow.
Hockey is his ticket out, his chance to send money home. He’s summoned to Detroit to play for the 1950s Red Wings, taken under the wing of general manager “Trader” Jack Adams.
Kevin Pollack’s Adams is a poet-philosopher himself, in this version of the tale. “There won’t be anything in your life after like belonging to a team,” he preaches. You and me know, he tells the kid, “the game is played between those two blood-red (goal) posts.”
The kid is a star, right from the start. He survives the hazing of the likes of Marcel Pronovost (Éric Bruneau) and Gordie Howe (Steve Byers), falls for a pretty/unimpressed-with-jocks waitress (Georgina Reilly, married to O’Brien real life) and starts a family.
But his new father figure? There’s a reason Terry got signed the year after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup (unloading a winning goalie), a reason they call the GM “Trader” Jack. Thus begins Sawchuck’s journeyman’s career, accompanied by frustration, abandonment issues, drinking and glass-throwing at home.
Maggs, a veteran of Canadian TV, stages the hockey games at half speed, the fights that interrupt the games as half-hearted pulled punches. The games are filmed and edited in the most pedestrian manner imaginable — mostly chest-high camera angles with the occasion skate-level point of view.
Seeing these guys on sharp blades wielding L-shaped cudgels slapping around a lethally-hard rubber disc, with shoulder pads, a jock strap and little else to protect them, makes you appreciate how dangerous the game was at full-speed, how brave and/or desperate the fellows playing it under those conditions must have been.
Maggs sees this as a character study in shades of volatile — rages followed by drunken sulking.
“Why don’t you go out there and take 50 shots to the face?”
That makes for a mopey movie, an uneven roller coaster ride where it’s all downhill — always. O’Brien and Pollack have nice chemistry, and the darkened rinks, offices and under-lit houses give the picture a pervasive, tragic gloom that the sketchy but conventionally structured story never lives down to.
That makes “Goalie” a glum sports bio-pic that plays like a long Canadian winter — with no highs, just lots of lows.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, alcohol abuse, profanity
Cast: Mark O’Brien, Kevin Pollack, Georginia Reilly, Éric Bruneau Janine Theriault and Ted Atherton.
Credits: Directed by Adriana Maggs, script by Adriana Maggs, Jane Maggs. A Dark Star release
Running time: 1:49