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“Red Letter Day” is a sharp thriller that smartly examines the hope and evil of humanity with blood, heart, and a strong lead performance.

A shotgun blast to the chest followed by a heaven-on-Earth commercial for a housing development in suburbia opens Red Letter Day, an appropriate start to a film that examines both the natural hope of humanity and natural evil as well. From here, the polluted minds of people splashing death all over what should be peaceful living plays out in an intense tale of family survival. And it’s this family unit that is the surprising life blood of Red Letter Day and gives the film an emotional center.

The introduction to the main characters is a refreshing sequence showing Melanie, a single mother with her teenage son (Kaeleb Zain Gartner) and daughter (Hailey Foss) actually getting along as they eat breakfast and start their day. Granted, the daughter joins her mom and brother a little later, after her older boyfriend sneaks out the window. But when she does join them, there’s obvious respect and love for her mother, a rare happening from a teenage movie character with dyed hair and dark eye shadow.

This type of close familial bond is the kind of family relationship seen in films of the 1980s and 90s and isn’t often presented in the films of today where parents are largely an afterthought. I mean, the son actually says, “I love you” to his mom!

This time spent watching the closeness of the family is necessary to kick off Red Letter Day in a way that sets the story up for success.

Once the mysterious red letters arrive in the mail instructing the family to kill people, the survivalist aspect of the story kicks in to high gear, and we immediately feel a bond with these characters. After all, it appears as though everyone in town received a red letter, and no doubt someone was told to kill Melanie and her kids as well.

The stakes are raised, the tension is established, and their survival becomes ours. Because on Red Letter Day, neighbors are enemies and no one can be trusted.

Dawn Van de Schoot as Melanie steals the show. Her performance is incredibly charismatic and genuine. She’s a mom whose kids are threatened. And once that happens, Van de Schoot turns Melanie into a reluctant warrior who knows she’s stuck in a game she didn’t start, but knows she has to finish. The character of Melanie also makes a hero out of a parent, a title in film that has lately been monopolized by people in goofy costumes with magic shields and hammers.

And Van de Schoot doesn’t play Melanie as a hero, focusing instead on the role of a protective mother. It’s this approach that makes her performance so strong and establishes her as the heart of the film.

At a speedy 75 minutes and operating in real time, Red Letter Day is a brief window into an alternate world where the anger and violence brewing inside of people takes over in a scary way.

It only takes the slightest implication or smallest shadow of doubt to causes the worst in people to emerge from within themselves. And the mindset and tone of this story feels closer than I think we pretend it is.

It’s a crazy world out there, and Red Letter Day tweaks it a little bit to show us just how scary it can become if we let it. It also shows us what really matters in life, regardless of what a piece of paper says.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

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