GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Lot 47 Films, 2001
Screenplay: Stephen M. Ryder, Michael Cuesta and Gerald Cuesta
Starring: Brian Cox, Paul Franklin Dano, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman, Marcia DeBonis, James Costa
Unrated, 96 minutes.
Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
Pedaphilia is a touchy subject and, to this day, is still one of the cinema's last taboos. Oddly enough it is often the subject of comedies but it is rarely, if ever, examined in a dramatic setting. L.I.E., directed (and co-written) by Michael Cuesta, tackles this delicate issue head-on and the result is both unsettling and compelling.
L.I.E. begins with a teen-ager perched precariously on the railing of an overpass above the Long Island Expressway (the L.I.E. of the film's title). His voice-over tells us that many people have died on the expressway: singer Harry Chapin, filmmaker Alan Pakula, and Sylvia Blitzer, his mother. He fears that someday it will take him as well.
Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) is 15 years old and sexually confused. While grieving his mother's death, his life spirals out of control. His home-life is in shambles. His indifferent father is preoccupied with his own problems because he is being investigated for installing faulty wiring in a building project that burned down. He is sleeping with "a bimbo" and their designer home is alive with the sounds of fornication. Feeling ignored, Howie skips school and hangs out with the wrong crowd; a group of petty teen thieves who rob expensive homes.
Their ringleader, Gary (Billy Kay), is an enigmatic youth who, unbeknownst to the others, also hustles in rest stops along the expressway. Gary provides Howie with the solace and encouragement he misses at home. Gary often compliments Howie on his looks, and asks him to run away with him to California. There is a sexual tension between them that you can cut with a knife. At one point Howie watches Gary fellate the barrel of a stolen gun. Howie doesn't understand his attraction to Gary but slowly realizes that he is falling in love with him.
Chaos erupts after Gary and Howie break into a secluded mansion and are almost caught by its owner, a 50-something ex-Marine named Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox). In an odd twist, we soon learn that Big John likes teen-aged boys and that he often pays to have sex with Gary. Big John tracks down Howie and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what his price will be to forget about the stolen goods.
His first attempt at seducing Howie is a repugnant scene which is interrupted rather humorously when his mother calls. Howie flees but later fantasizes about the encounter. Such are the complicated dynamics of L.I.E. Howie is a sensitive, yet angry, boy and Big John knows exactly how to prey on the bewildered youth's feelings. But when Gary suddenly plays the usurper and runs away from home, (and Howie's dad is carted off to jail), Howie has no one to turn to and Big John becomes a substitute father. At this point, Big John actually feels sorry for the boy and his feelings seem more paternal than sexual.
Let me make it clear that L.I.E. is not an apology for child molesters, nor is it a commercial for NAMBLA. We never lose sight of Big John's ugly side. A brief glimpse of a young boy wearing a bonnet on his computer screen is enough to remind the audience. The film neither applauds or condemns, instead it presents a subtle and complex portrait of both the sexual predator and his not-so-innocent prey. This cautionary tale. gives us a glimpse of the chicken hawk's mind while, at the same time, detailing how a troubled youth can be snared into such a person's lair.
And here lies the controversy over L.I.E. It would be easy to present Big John as a monster, but the filmmakers decided to show that there is a human being behind his wolf's guise. When Big John's houseboy tells him that he should be ashamed of himself, the repentant pederast says, "I am. I always am." It is perhaps for this reason that the MPAA refused to pass L.I.E. with an R rating. This is unfortunate because vulnerable teens might actually learn something from the film. (A R-rated version is now available at chain video stores but I do not know how much is missing from the original cut.) As I write this review, a comedy called Tadpole, in which a 15 year old boy has sex with a woman in her 40s, has just hit the multiplexes with a PG-13 rating. Go figure.
A few decades ago, Big John would have been a cartoon. He probably would have made his first entrance wearing make-up and a silk kimono. Instead, we discover that he is ex-Marine who collects guns and has animal trophies on the walls of his den. He is both menacing and charismatic. In a striking early scene he drives his car, checking out the boys playing on the street, while Donovan's "The Hurdy Gurdy Man" plays ominously on the soundtrack. In contrast, he later sings "Danny Boy" softly at his piano while Howie sleeps undisturbed upstairs.
A cat and mouse game is enacted with both the boy and the man marking their territories. Howie learns along the way how to manipulate the older man and it is often hard to ascertain just who is doing the seducing at any given point.. The peril, and the allure, of this explosive situation is summed up in a striking Bergman-eque scene, filmed in a mirror, when Big John shaves the boy's face with a straight razor. The scene, almost unbearable in its tension, drips with both danger and eroticism.
This is a coming-of-age story that is light years from such pointless Hollywood drivel like American Pie. There is nothing prurient about L.I.E. and nothing is presented purely for its shock value or to be sensational. Its only false note is the melodramatic climax. Although it is believable, it feels tacked on, and at odds with the subtlety of everything that came before. Without giving it away, let's just say that an ambiguous open ending should have been the road taken.
It is also worth noting that all of the sex that is explored in L.I.E. is of a deviant nature. One of Howie's friends proudly tells the gang that he is having sex with his sister. The one explicit sexual moment shown onscreen is Howie's father furiously plowing away at his mistress.
While uncomfortable to watch, this film commands your attention with a fine attention to detail combined with exceptional performances. Unlike most teen films, the boys are believable and fully developed individuals. Paul Dano is a natural as Howie. The terrific character actor Brian Cox (he played the gay father in The Lost Language of Cranes and was also was the original Hannibal Lechter in Manhunter) is unforgettable as Big John. He is both intimidating and gentle, yet manages to embody all these contradictions.
For DVD collectors, the special unrated edition contains two audio commentaries; one by the director and one by Brian Cox. Listening to how Cox approached this very difficult role should be especially informative to young actors trying to hone their craft. Five deleted scenes complete the package.
AN INFORMATIONAL NOTE:
It was recently pointed out to me by a dear friend that one of the films I recently reviewed (Like It Is) is unavailable for rent here in Buffalo. I'd like to take a moment to inform my readers of an alternative to the chain video stores in town. This is not a commercial, and I am not getting a kickback for writing this, but anyone who owns a DVD player should know about the online DVD rental service, netflix.com. It is through netflix.com that I was able to rent the unrated version of L.I.E. as well as dozens of other gay titles and special editions of classic foreign films. Mondo Video at 1109 Elmwood also stocks many of these hard-to-find titles on VHS.
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