Tuesday, October 30, 2001

To get a sense of the power actor Brian Cox presents, it's useful to watch two movies: Hampton Fancher's The Minus Man (1999) and Michael Cuesta's directorial debut, the new film L.I.E. It's also worth noting that Cox was the first Hannibal Lecter in 1986's Manhunter.

In The Minus Man, Cox seals the movie as an apparently well-adjusted, small-town man who is in fact going crazy, tormented with fantasies of his departed daughter.

In L.I.E., Cox has is haunted not by girls but little boys. As Big John Harrigan, a wealthy, popular Long Islander, he is tempted to take advantage of gay boys, offering them needed emotional support while often extracting psychological abuse. The movie's most sublime moment comes in a totally confused expression on Cox's face that embodies this conflict as a young man, Howie Blitzer, seeks his embrace.

Howie, 15, the movie’s protagonist, has recently lost his mother, the family anchor, in a car crash on the L.I.E. - the Long Island Expressway. We get the sense his father, a breadwinning asshole caught up in a legal scam, is never around for the erudite but naïve boy.

Howie's friends, including Gary, who is known to all but Howie as a "salami swiper" - a male prostitute - hang out near the freeway, under high-tension power lines or behind strip malls, smoking, swigging beer and talking tough. While James Dean was clearly older than the high schooler he played in Rebel Without a Cause, these boys look much younger, their braggadocio undermined by the whitebread world around them.

Cuesta, who shares writing credits with two others on the movie, has an eye and an ear for these suburban brats, who are fascinated by bodily functions sexual and excretory but also by the greater possibilities of life. His Long Island of watered lawns and homogenous high schools could be ten minutes from any big city.

Howie's "sensitive" nature is never addressed head-on. Rather, Cuesta attacks the doom that all boys - even Howie's father - face in these amoral environs.

Howie joins the boys on their burglary sprees, breaking into wealthy homes and, like the children they still are, heading for the refrigerator. Gary soon takes Howie under his wing, and the tension building between them rings familiar to former teens of any sexual persuasion.

From his salami escapades, Gary knows that Big John's house holds some valuable treasures, so he and Howie break into it during John’s birthday party. Though they escape, it's not long before Big John puts a few things together and is hot on Gary’s trail.

As John realizes that Howie is not really responsible for the theft, however, their relationship deepens. At first the elder tries to seduce the younger, offering him rides in a mint Cutlass, but it is not long before their positions are reversed, as Howie quotes Walt Whitman to the elder statesman.

Both quickly realize that Howie needs support more than anything else. Abandoned by friends and bullied at school, Howie is completely alone. As his father's legal and financial worries spiral (implausibly) out of control, Howie is left on his own.

Like Todd Solondz's Happiness, L.I.E. lifts the stone of society, putting the gross and disgusting that slither below on uncomfortable display. While Solondz seems content to point at the squirming creatures, Cuesta feels the Howies of the world deserve better and that the proverbial caterpillars could be butterflies someday. Despite an unsatisfying ending, Cuesta's hope for Howie - for the young men in places like Long Island - gives the movie a note of redemption.

Rating: A-

Reviewed by Crispin Havernill
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