dir. Michael Cuesta
Opens Fri Sept 28 at the Neptune.
The best part about L.I.E., Michael Cuesta's riveting new drama, is that I can't really tell you very much about it. As a viewer, I generally prefer to know some plot details before going into a movie, so I can concentrate on the more interesting parts. But L.I.E.'s gravitas is inextricably tied to the specific events the plot builds up to, and so in the interest of preserving what could be a profoundly challenging filmgoing experience, I'm going to spare you the expository details that would enable me to review the movie proper.
A little background is necessary, however, to make sense of the interview I conducted with Cuesta, who was driving down the Long Island Expressway at the time, talking into a constantly cutting-out cell phone. The film is about a kid named Howie, whose mother is dead and whose father is a crooked building contractor. Through his friend Gary, with whom he shares a confusing attraction, Howie comes in contact with Big John (played brilliantly by Brian Cox), an ex-Marine with a big orange sports car and a proclivity for sex with underage boys.
I wondered if the sexual predator character was integral from the outset, and if Cuesta's intention as a writer was to challenge or play around with the danger and incredibly weighted cultural significance of a character like that.
"No," Cuesta told me. "He actually started out much more of a--I would say a smaller role. And it was much more two-dimensional. He didn't play a role like he does now. It was much more of the kid. And over time he'd start finding meaning in the script and where it was going. It just evolved into that. I've found that, since it was a boy's story, it was interesting to explore the paternal aspects of that kind of guy, and that's kinda how we found, I would say, the decency in him. If there is any."
I observed that the presence of Big John makes the whole film appear to be building toward a horrible moment that you can see coming a mile away. It's disturbing because you're watching a predator stalking his unwitting prey. In a way, that's what provides much of the movie's suspense, a fact Cuesta was well aware of.
"You're very much right," the director concurred. "That is what keeps you in your seat. It's like, 'When is this kid gonna fall into the hands of this chicken hawk?'"
But when Howie--the prey--discovers the power he has in this scenario, the film becomes infinitely more complex, both morally and psychologically.
"I mean, in a way," Cuesta elaborated, "it's a sexual coming of age because he is coming of age sexually--he's exploring with his mother's lipstick and all that, and his attraction to Gary, and obviously the Big John connection is quite confusing. For him. I mean, at the end of the film, it's not like he's this now-sexually-confident kid who knows what he is, gay or straight. He doesn't really come of age sexually in the film. It's more like he came of age more emotionally. You know? In the end, how he's been through so much--his own little Vietnam, I used to say; his own little war--and he comes out okay in the end. Almost unscathed. And Big John is sort of there to foster it. Which is, I think, what people find most troubling."
Given the diciness of the subject matter, I wondered whether the younger actors (or their parents) ever shrank from the uncomfortable material.
"No, never," said Cuesta. "They understood the subject matter from the start, and they were real pros. Y'know, with kids, there's not a lot of preparation. You cast them for sort of who they are. They don't have that learned ability or learned craft, like Brian Cox. So they come in and they pretty much act natural and you're navigating--you keep it on course."
Despite the absence of any graphic material, L.I.E. has received an NC-17 rating, which the filmmakers and distributors fought, unsuccessfully, to appeal.
"We're disappointed and surprised," Cuesta explained. "I think it's censorship and I think that if we didn't have homosexual content, we would have gotten an R rating. I think it's more homophobia than anything else. I believe that if Howie was a girl, we wouldn't be having this problem. So, it's weird. It's subject matter. It's nothing graphic. They couldn't be specific on what the problem was. It was more like, 'Well, we just find it inappropriate.'"
Truth to tell, it's hard not to find L.I.E. inappropriate, even disturbing at times, on its way to a climax that forces you to reevaluate those feelings. But I had to wonder if the MPAA had a valid argument. Does Cuesta think the world is ready for a film that challenges their reflexive vilification of pederasts?
"Um, I don't know," he replied. "I mean, I think we're living in modern times. Anything goes, it seems like now. But people look at L.I.E. and say, 'Okay, wait a second. We can deal with gay material, but not this kind of gay material.'"