A REVIEW OF THE FILM L.I.E. (2001)
L.I.E. is an American drama directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Paul Dano and Brian Cox. Running time 97 minutes.
In the L.I.E. of the Beholder
by Sam Hall, 30 May 2022
The film L.I.E. ("Long Island Expressway") sets up a challenge: What if a first-time director daringly presented a potential pederastic relationship that looked decidedly positive for both man and boy? How would the brazen director get out of such a venture with the precious L.I.E. intact? Michael Cuesta manages it, but only by cheating and finally selling his two excellent main characters down the expressway. What remains, though, after the phobic pea-and-thimble tricks and the ridiculously tidy extermination of the pederast, is a brief study of a man-boy relationship of impressive complexity and weight.
Howie Blitzer is fifteen years old and trying to negotiate various adolescent precipices. He's precocious intellectually but otherwise a little immature, noticeably behind his friends in confidence and physical development. This seems connected to the major shaping influence on his life, the recent death of his mother in a car crash on the L.I.E. Howie has been rudely wrenched from a close mother-son relationship, one that clearly informed his love of poetry. He now finds himself in an all-male world and although he's game, admirably determined and unwilling to complain, it is proving a tough slog.
Chief Bozo in this all-male world is Marty Blitzer, Howie's real-estate developer dad. After losing his wife, Marty's main concern seems to be to recapture his own adolescent glory days, banging chicks with porn star gusto and showing off his six-pack to his suitably appalled son. Marty seems not so much a role model as a quasi-bullying competitor. He reminded me of Biff from Back To The Future, always grabbing the hapless McFly character round the neck to rap on his head ("Hello! Hello! Anybody home?!") -- a serious stumbling block to the boy's need for self-expression. We learn that Howie's commitment to writing poetry is lapsing at the moment.
With his school work also in decline, Howie commits most of his energies to proving himself with three borderline delinquents, a gang who rob houses and talk dirty in a way only teenagers can or should. And in this edgy setting, it's the charismatic hustler Gary who starts to become an important friend. Howie seems to be about the only person in town who doesn't know Gary works as a rent-boy, and that ignorance may be in part wilful. Howie's developed somewhat of a crush on the sexy, more mature and confident boy. Gary's attractive in and of himself but also as an ideal -- he represents to Howie a yearned-for self-confident state from whence his mummy-boy anxieties can be banished.
The friendship between the two seems on the verge of consummation, Gary flirting with studied casualness, Howie nervously entertaining his response. Interestingly, Gary never does attempt what he must know would be a fairly straight forward seduction. Howie's fifteen -- it's not an age at which a boy has anything other than impatient contempt for his virgin state. But Gary, it turns out, has set up shop in the homosexual bazaar purely for business. While he certainly enjoys his flirtatious friendship with naive Howie, and uses his hold on him to plan a joint escape to California, a sexual relationship doesn't seem to appeal. It's likely Gary isn't gay and will before long leave the chaotic adventure of his rent-boy days for girls, marriage and the whole respectable shebang. A noteworthy achievement of this film is the way it leaves these boys' sexual identities in an open-ended state, befitting adolescent nature and disdaining childish politics.
Gary's most important plot contribution turns out to be his introducing Howie to Big John Harrigan. Big John is universally referred to by film reviewers as a "pedophile" and a "predator". He's not remotely either. Viewed from a historical and multi-cultural perspective, he's a fairly straight-forward run-of-the-mill pederast. Or, at least, his sexual preference for boys is unexceptional. His eccentric, lovable rogue persona is anything but! Brian Cox got rave reviews for this role and deservedly so. A lot of the early material introducing us to Big John is pretty wild stuff. Many other actors, performing exactly the same scenes, would have produced a decidedly creepy character. It's tempting to speculate that Cox dragged this film into more pro-pederastic terrain than was initially intended. When velvet and chiaroscuro hints of some schlock 70's horror flick start to loom, Cox somehow keeps it all Irish charm and rollicking laughs.
Big John's first appearance, celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday with his mum and a few assorted oddballs, is reminiscent of the sublimely insane tea-party in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Big John's on a couch, shoved unnecessarily hard up against his dear old mum, while inspecting some hair or ligaments in his slice of birthday cake. A dead-eyed young man resembling Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show tells of having made the cake and of managing to fit forty carrots into it. The extended scene has the sort of edgy, off-kilter hilarity one associates with a basement full of bodies.
And of course there are bodies in the basement. Gary has, with flirtatious panache, talked Howie into robbing Big John's house. Mid-raid, Howie clumsily knocks over some shelving and gives the game away. As mad Big John thunders down the dark basements steps -- the only thing missing is a silhouette of raised dagger -- the boys escape, just. The angry homeowner manages to grab Howie by his back jeans pocket which detaches like a skink's tail, enabling the boy to escape. It's a playful nod to our primate origins. Juvenile monkeys being pursued by enraged adult males will instinctually present their buttocks in sexual solicitation in order to convert dangerous anger to discombobulating lust. Observations made over a hundred years ago by scientists such as G.V. Hamilton confirm how effective a stratagem it can be.
The quirky primal pocket-gag is continued on with hilarious overkill. The next scene sees Big John cruising the streets in his quietly throbbing boy-magnet muscle car. Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" is playing on the tape deck, with its eerie underground eroticism full of mystery and menace. Big John, suitably trance-like, is holding Howie's scrap of denim, regularly putting it to his face to take deep intoxicating sniffs. "Down through all eternity...the Hurdy Gurdy Man / comes singing songs of love..." Smell, the most ancient sense, is an infernal expressway to our animal origins. Forget neophyte apes with their social trickery, smell connects us to lizard and fish, halfway back to where the stink first began. Later Big John will jokingly explain to Gary, amazed at how quickly the man tracked him down, that when it comes to boys he has "special magical powers." Access to natural instincts long since buried under heavy concrete L.I.E.'s often appear that way.
After Big John discovers Gary's Svengali role in the robbery, he quickly realises that with Howie he is pursuing "a different class of criminal." The two share a love of poetry and connect intellectually, sparring and flirting in a way where it's hard to say who's having the better time. Certainly Howie quickly starts to enjoy the trappings of being sexually desired by a charismatic, forceful personality like Big John. The boy is a budding poet, so life-experience outside sanitised suburbia is essential. The question soon becomes, as the friendship builds, will Howie decide to try a sexual relationship with Big John? The film, fortunately, doesn't make this question synonymous with, Is Howie gay? Whatever sexual identity Howie goes on to claim, or not claim, as an adult, right now he's very much opposed to a gay identity while being attracted to some homosexual opportunities on offer.
The life-circumstances of both man and boy, the quality of their pederastically-shaping friendship, make the question a bit of a no-brainer, really. Howie's decision to offer himself to Big John doesn't come as a surprise. Sure, as an inexperienced adolescent, doubts, uncertainties and anxieties flourish in all directions, but one need only look at Howie's relationship with his school counsellor to see how harshly and surely kids will judge what matters. The middle-aged female school counsellor is a good woman who clearly cares -- within the limits of her professional duties. Howie's not the slightest bit interested in her well-meaning questions and concerns. She misreads Howie's black eye and at best can offer him phone numbers which will connect him with even more skilful and dedicated professionals. While she's unambiguously a good woman, her constant look of workload fatigue and resigned disappointment is astutely summed up and rejected by a boy who's looking for a meaningful start in life, not another drearily safe holding pen.
Big John offers a giddily exotic cornucopia of real life experience and adventure. For starters, and it shouldn't be relegated in importance, he early on informs the boy he gives the best blowjobs in the western hemisphere -- and one wouldn't put it past Big John, whose personalised number plate reads "BJ", to be speaking truth here. Any male who disputes the profound, existential importance of this to a teenage boy has conveniently contrived never to have been an adolescent. In Paul Wilson's book The Man They Called A Monster, Clarence Osborne, a dedicated and very successful lover of boys, explains the strategy he used if he wanted a boy to stop calling at his house:
Whenever I want to stop a boy coming around I just let him into the house and talk to him and don't give him any sex at all. This is the way I stop most boys from coming again if I don't want them to.
In other words, he becomes their counsellor.
But Big John also offers many more important possibilities. His knowledge of poetry, his enthusiasm for Howie's budding talent, can only be positive. Perhaps even more significant, Big John offers a practical entry point into society, a more mature alternative to the kid's all-out effort to prove himself in a gang of thieves. Big John Harrigan is a larger-than-life, gregarious man who has seemingly endless contacts and networks in greater society -- schools, police, international diplomacy, the most respectable heights. In Renaissance Florence mothers would have been hurling their neatly coiffed sons in his path. From the disinterested perspective of evolutionary psychology, Big John is a valuable resource for the boy. You can see the attraction this holds for Howie when Big John arrives to get him out of some trouble at the police station. The boy is dazzled by the man's ability to breeze into the station, effortlessly manoeuvre his way through various social challenges -- has them eating out of his hands with his lovable rogue bluster -- finally carrying the boy off like a smoothly swooping Zeus.
So it's a shame when the next important scene drives a Christian stake through the film's heart. Howie, naked, goes to Big John's bedroom and throws himself into the man's arms. As firmly as the boy rejected his counsellor's professional overtures, he now gives a resounding yes to having Big John as his lover. Big John, in the meantime, has decided that, no, it would be wrong to have any sexual contact with the boy. Cuesta tries to camouflage this hollow clanger with some plot tinsel. Howie believes his father has deserted him, whereas he has in fact been arrested and imprisoned. So the boy is acting on a misguided sense of being abandoned and alone in the world. Only a monster would take advantage... But it's pure filmic sleight of hand. Whatever the convolutions of the present moment, the relationship was and is awaiting Howie's decision. Only the hard toil of an increasingly psychotic deus ex machina is able to cheat Howie out of his right to a heart and mind.
The rejection scene is fuelled not so much by our problems with pederasty -- although they are legion -- but by our problems with Sex. Sex may no longer be thought of as fallen in the Christian way, but it is certainly seen as an incredibly dangerous form of plutonium, only safe to be handled by trained and appropriately gowned experts. If Yahweh had been as informed as today's liberal omniscients, He would surely have equipped the male generative organ with a child-proof cap. What Howie wants and needs from Big John on this night is a full expression of an affection already verging on love. Big John at fifty-five is two-parts rogue and three parts den-mother. At this time in Howie's life, it's a perfect match. But what Howie gets instead is a gentle but firm rebuff, sent back to his room and his all-too-familiar isolation. And we the audience honour John's sacrifice. We the audience glow with inner warmth at the sight of Howie, safely tucked into his childish single bed, untouched and untouchable. Another way of looking at it: what an extraordinary price we demand of others when indulging our post-Christian puritan frolics.
The vampire with a conscience, refusing to bite the victim he loves, has been a hugely popular trope since Joss Whedon's Angel. It's a sappy secular clinging to the sex-phobic apron-strings of Christianity the mother-sect. Big John needed to be a far lesser man to make this tedious schtick work. From the pivotal rejection scene, the story falls apart quicker than a horror film corpse in a chainsaw shop. The next morning, after Howie has been safely consigned to impotent childhood, there's a rather flat, perfunctory quality to the film's central relationship. Consigning an adolescent boy to perpetual childhood might be a queerly thrilling exercise for onlookers, the lived reality ain't a whole lot to write home about.
It's as Big John is driving the boy to visit his dad in prison that the true fallout is exposed -- the damage done to both the relationship and the movie. Big John tells Howie that he's welcome to drop in anytime for anything he needs. Howie responds in a smart-aleck tone, "Yeah, like sex?" John is hurt; visibly wincing, he tells the boy not to be crass, that he doesn't mean that.
Dear God in heaven! Yes, we have all died and gone to a better and more therapeutic place. Howie, with his wise-crack about sex, uses a tone he hasn't used with Big John before. It is the tone he uses with his counsellor. And Big John's offer of help is almost transgender in its perfect mimicry of that drab female caregiver. The boy's crassness is understandable. If he can't be taken at his word -- let alone, God forbid, taken seriously -- why should he bother going along with his allotted role of grateful client? Big John being crammed into the persona of professional carer is one of the more appalling things I've seen on film for a while. His death can't come quick enough.
At the prison Howie tells his dad off for some of his more egregious behaviour and we get the sense that time, three meals a day, and random mood-swings are seeing the boy more or less grow up. That, I guess, is what counts as inspirational in a film celebrating a boy in a bubble.
The finale, however, takes it up a notch with a startling bit of misanthropic nastiness. It sees Howie return to his opening-scene lone-wolf haunt, the L.I.E. overpass where the brute, unstoppable, impersonal traffic prompts deeper life-musings. At the same time we see Big John, somewhere on the same L.I.E., being shot and killed by a former boy-love, the dead-eyed Riff Raff, he of the forty carrots and slightly lower IQ. It was certainly a necessary execution, there being no other way to ensure the man-boy relationship didn't haunt the audience from off-screen. But having it lovingly twinned with the boy's uplifting 400 blows-like final moment, where he says he thinks he's going to make it, is a rather warped use of dramatic irony. What are we to make of the boy's tentative optimism the very moment his best friend, potential lover and one positive avenue to red-blooded life-engagement, is being gunned down? That his life is about to be smashed by another tragedy of the L.I.E.? No, that is not the film's vibe. Instead, it's presented as a bitter-sweet but ultimately rewarding and elevating act of providence. Whew, the kid's gonna be okay, after all.
It took over fifteen hundred years for Christendom to gain the ability to build the L.I.E. running so noisily through this film. It remains to be seen how long it takes to crumble. When it does, though, as even the most concrete things must, it'll once more be men like Big John with their apocalyptic muscle cars and olfactory omniscience that'll rule the rubble.