Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Hannibal Lecher

I know that my hit-and-run one-paragraph film reviews are shorter than ones you read in the newspaper or even elsewhere on the Internet. But, frankly, that length actually does justice to most new films these days.

Every so often, however, a new film comes along that begs for a more in-depth discussion. Such a film is Michael Cuesta’s feature debut, L.I.E.. This movie meets my prime requirement for a cinematic success: our immediate reaction isn’t simply, “Well, we’ve certainly this often enough before.” In other words, whether you love it or hate it or just don’t know what to make of it, this movie is different from other films in several different ways.

L.I.E. has played over in my mind enough times (another requirement for being a successful film) that I nearly regret not giving it three stars. But my star system is essentially for the purposes of making recommendations, and two stars means “see it if it sounds interesting to you,” which definitely applies in this case. I know that a lot of people would be put off by the movie, and I’m not sure that I could blame them.

As a narrative, the film is faultless. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a conflict and a resolution. We are not left wanting in terms of a story.

But in other ways, L.I.E. raises a lot of questions in our minds that don’t necessarily have answers. And, depending on your point of view, this is either stimulating or frustrating. Take the protagonist, 15-year-old Howie (played by Paul Franklin Dano). One might suspect that we are intended to see him as someone who is beginning to realize that he is gay. Whether Howie is (or will be) gay is absolutely irrelevant to the story, but from a political or social point of view, we wonder if some message is meant to be received here. The answer is apparently no. For one thing, the director (whose previous work has been in commercials) is not gay. Furthermore, he has said in an interview that, while most gay audiences tend to think Howie is gay, most straight audiences think he is straight. I suppose it works either way, especially since most of us realize that, at that age, it is not uncommon to have crushes on friends and/or authority figures of the same sex. (Hey, I don’t mean me! I’m talking about other guys!)

More enigmatic is Howie’s friend Gary (played by Billy Kay). Is his friendship with Howie sincere? Or is he just using him? Or is it some combination of the two? Is he actually attracted to Howie, or is he grooming him as a possible partner in turning tricks? Or is he strictly manipulating him until he can get the chance to rip off his affluent, suburban house? Again, most viewers will be able to work this one out to their own satisfaction.

By far the most problematic character in the movie is the one played by Brian Cox. Scotsman Cox, who just won an Emmy for playing Hermann Goering in the TNT miniseries Nuremberg, has been in a whole lot of movies on both sides of the Atlantic—including both of 1995’s paeans to Scottish nationalism, Braveheart and Rob Roy. He also has the distinction of being the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter on the silver screen (in Michael Mann’s 1986 movie Manhunter). In L.I.E. Cox plays “Big John” Harrigan, an ex-Marine whose car sports a vanity plate that reads (provocatively) “BJ.” Aside from being as old as dirt (from a teenager’s perspective), he is the ultimate cool adult. He treats kids like equals, he lets them drive his cool, fast car, and he lets them hang out in his cool, old house. And his mysterious military past makes him heroic, a real man’s man. Except that he’s actually a boy’s man. His down side is that he likes to have sex with underage boys and is into child pornography.

The “problem” with this character is that, within the timeframe covered by the movie, he is totally benign. In fact, he more or less rescues Howie, who has slipped through the social cracks of school, law enforcement and an otherwise occupied single father. Heck, he’s almost a hero. But we know from John’s own admission that he feels unremitting shame about his lifestyle, and we see some evidence of the harm he has caused prior to this story. In fact, by the closing credits, one of this chicken hawk’s chickens comes home to roost in a very sudden and violent way. Yet by this point we have come to know him as a human being and have seen him do some good deeds and even be kind to his elderly mother. What “message” are we meant to take from this?

The risk, of course, is that self-appointed censors might see this as an affirmation of pedophilia. Indeed, there is something quite uncomfortable about this aspect of the film, just as there was in Todd Solondz’s Happiness. The treatment of this subject matter apparently resulted in the film’s NC-17 rating even though the one violent scene is tamer than most TV shows and the only sex seen on-screen is between consenting heterosexual adults and is comparable to lots of R movies. (There are also some glimpses of “kiddie porn.” These are not particularly explicit or suggestive, but that doesn’t make them any less disturbing.)

At the end of the day, the film really has no message, at least in any kind of overt political sense. Okay, maybe there is one clear message, and that would be: don’t leave envelopes full of cash lying around in an unlocked drawer in your unlocked house. But other than that, it’s just a story. But a good one, about coming of age and about survival. The fact that one of the characters is a pedophile is incidental. And that’s what makes the movie difficult. Given the horror that pedophilia represents, it just doesn’t seem like it should be incidental.

-S.L., 8 November 2001

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