Movie Review: L.I.E.
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Brian Cox delivers a great, supremely unsettling performance in "L. I. E." one so powerful it almost eclipses the rest of the movie. Cox plays Big John Harrigan, a well-known, middle-aged, middle-class writer who lives on Long Island and preys on teen boys. Dark and disturbing as the subject matter may be, Cox burns the image of Big John on your mind. This is probably one of the handful of 2001 movie performances that will be best remembered come time for year's end awards.
But it's also a deeply troubling role. Cox makes this depraved character so believable he can't be kept at arm's length. The British classical actor, who created the role of Hannibal Lecter (a.k.a. "Lecktor") in Michael Mann's 1986 "Manhunter," has a rich, commanding presence and style and a warm, ruined, craggy face that suggests caverns illumined by lightning flashes of lust. His Big John is a truly fascinating character, with the look of a worn, lecherous old cop and a crackle of danger in all his scenes.
Cox and director/co-writer Michael Cuesta don't present Big John as a monster even though he's an obvious predator with huge sexual appetites, many directed toward the movie's protagonist/narrator, Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano). Instead, they give us the kind of convincingly mixed-bag character that movies often avoid: a rounded, good-and-evil figure with big strengths and massive moral flaws. Big John, for all his crimes (and all his own self-condemnation) also has his good side, and for a while, Howie, who surprisingly knows poetry and Walt Whitman, seems to bring it out.
The movie is Howie's coming-of-age saga. It's about how a boy loses his father businessman Marty (Bruce Altman), a prosperous New Yorker arrested for a shady deal and tries to find another. Left on his own even before that arrest, Howie falls into a perilous world of teen-age crime and prostitution with his amoral buddy, Gary Terrio (Billy Kay), and then, when Gary deserts him, finds a temporary surrogate dad in Big John. Big John is an ex-lover of Gary's who meets Howie after the two boys rob his home. He becomes genuinely moved by Howie, protective of him. That paternal instinct makes Big John more interesting but it also accounts for the queasy feeling you sometimes get watching him. The title "L.I.E." refers to the Long Island Expressway, which slashes through the gray, half-dead suburban terrain where they all live. At the beginning of the film, Howie is shown perched on the walkway over the cataract while cars race by below. He tells us about people who died in crashes on the expressway: singer-songwriter Harry Chapin ("Taxi"), director-producer Alan Pakula ("Klute") and Howie's mother. And by the intro's end, when Howie actually walks on the ledge, the metaphor has taken on a bludgeoning largeness. The expressway stands for life, danger, temptation and lies: too much symbolic traffic for any roadway to carry.
If the title is overloaded with symbolism, the story itself is overpacked with erotic tension and bad-boy shocks as if Cuesta were somehow trying to combine "Huckleberry Finn" with "City of Night," John Rechy's novel of gay life. Like Larry Clark's teen sex expose-chronicles "Kids" and "Bully," parts of "L.I.E." seem to be calculated turn-ons and blatant push-button shockers. But parts of it are also quite moving.
Cuesta, a commercial photographer and director, has a very firm grip on milieu and atmosphere. He knows how to shoot for mood instead of gloss. He's caught the scrappy, arid feel of suburbia on the edge, and a meanness and shallowness underneath. The first scenes full of smutty talk and teenage posturing are a lot like Clark's, but they're also evocative and intriguing.
The appearance of Cox deepens the tale. His Big John is presented as an ex-Marine and famed poet as well as a pederast. He's believable as all three and also as a local celebrity who packs a lot of clout with the local police. We first see Big John at a party where he's singing and dancing to the George M. Cohan song "Harrigan" ("a name that a shame never has been connected with"), while Gary and a reluctant Howie are burgling his antique gun collection downstairs. In retrospect, this is an absurd sequence. But, amazingly, Cox brings it off, and in later scenes with Gary or Howie, the power of his characterization grows. He gives Big John a weary, lustful self-loathing and glibness that are affecting, scary and oddly amusing.
Some audiences, in fact, will be quite shocked at how sympathetic Big John becomes; in some ways, he's the most likable character in the film. Cuesta, who grew up on Long Island and still lives there with his wife and family, shows us the dark, venal side of suburbia: incest, homosexuality, whoring and drugs among the kids, and equally extralegal activities among the adults. Everything seems bent. A whole moral dimension is missing everywhere which is why Big John's growing kindness toward Howie, his sacrificing his own desires to help him, begin to seem so strange. Is Big John doing good to satisfy himself, or is he shown doing good because Cuesta wants to appease the audience and censors? Is the violent close simply a convenient moral sweep-up and tying of loose ends? These are questions the movie doesn't really answer, though it also doesn't evade them.
Perhaps the sympathy really comes because Cox's actor's genius lets him locate and reveal the role's essential humanity. The other actors, good as most of them are, are stuck with a script (written by Cuesta, his brother Gerald and Stephen M. Ryder) that's quite daring but also far too programmed and schematic, too freighted with that pushy symbolism and overcalculated significance.
"L.I.E." is a film I admire because it does exactly what independent American films should do: tackle subject matter you couldn't do in a mainstream movie and handle it in a nonsensational, thoughtful, intelligent manner. But the movie doesn't go deep enough; though if it did, the audience might not be able to accept it. "L.I.E." was a surprise indie box-office hit in New York and I suspect that two major reasons were that phony ending and the fact that the relationship between Howie and Big John remains unconsummated. After all, movie audiences love romantic renunciation, which is what we see in one of Big John's favorites, "Casablanca."
Still, "L.I.E." is a sometimes engrossing exploration of darkest suburbia and teen-age rites of passage, and Cox's powerful performance with its magisterial command and deep empathy is both the film's blessing and curse. He makes the movie unforgettable, but he also raises questions the rest of the film doesn't answer. "L.I.E." takes us off that ledge too easily. It would have been a better film if the danger never ended.
Directed and co-written by Michael Cuesta; co-written by Stephen M. Ryder, Gerald Cuesta; photographed by Romeo Tirone; edited by Eric Carlson, Kane Platt; production designed by Elise Bennett; music by Pierre Foldes; produced by Rene Bastian, Linda Moran, M. Cuesta. A Lot 47 Films release; opens Friday, Sept. 21. Running time: 1:37. MPAA rating: NC-17 (some explicit sexual content).
Big John Harrigan Brian Cox
Howie Blitzer Paul Franklin Dano
Gary Terrio Billy Kay
Marty Blitzer Bruce Altman
Kevin Cole James Costa
Brian Tony Donnelly