L.I.E. Movie Review
Cox plays the role of Big John Harrigan in the disturbing new indie flick L.I.E., which Lot 47 picked up at Sundance when other distributors were scared to budge. Big John feels the love that dares not speak its name, but he expresses it through seeking out adolescents and bringing them back to his pad. What bothered some audience members was the presentation of Big John in an oddly empathetic light. He's an even-tempered, funny, robust old man who actually listens to the kids' problems (as opposed to their parents and friends, both caught up in the high-wire act of their own confused lives.) He'll have sex-for-pay with them only after an elaborate courtship, charming them with temptations from the grown-up world.
L.I.E. stands for Long Island Expressway, which slices through the strip malls and middle-class homes of suburbia. Filmmaker Michael Cuesta uses it as a (pretty transparent) metaphor of dangerous escape for his 15-year old protagonist, Howie (Paul Franklin Dano). In his opening voice-over, Howie reveals a morbid preoccupation with death on the road, citing the L.I.E. highway deaths of filmmaker Alan J. Pakula, songwriter Harry Chapin, and his own mother on Exit 52. He's both fascinated and disturbed by the L.I.E., and those feelings are projected onto Big John (who follows Howie around in his bright red car, but never makes a move to force the boy to do something he doesn't want to do. This makes him much more complex than the usual child molesters seen in movies -- he's a beast, but ashamed of it.)
L.I.E. would have worked best as a half-hour short film about Howie's ill-advised foray into Big John's haven. There is unnecessary padding with Howie's miserable dad (Bruce Altman) in the hot seat for a white-collar crime, degenerate youngsters who get their kicks from robbing middle-class houses, and some homoerotic shenanigans with wise-ass Gary Terrio (Billy Kay), a handsome Artful Dodger. Rather than add to the themes of suburban ennui (not that we needed another movie on that subject), these awkward subplots pad out the running time to adequate feature length.
Concurrently, the relationship between Howie and Big John is evenly paced and exceptionally well acted. Cox, sporting a baseball cap and a faded marine tattoo, is all bluff and bluster. Dano is quiet and at first glance seems so withdrawn as to be transparent. We're so used to child actors whose dramatic choices are broad and obvious (calling Haley Joel!), it's surprising to see one who actually listens throughout any given scene. The restraint is admirable.
But L.I.E.'s screenplay doesn't always give them the best material. When Howie reads Big John a Walt Whitman poem, the moment feels a bit too precious. Director Michael Cuesta lingers on an ecstatic reaction shot of Big John, who may as well be hearing Glenn Gould performing Bach's Goldberg Variations. It's too much. There are also some obvious dramatic contrivances involving Big John's other boy toy (Walter Masterson), jealous over the newbie. This plot thread predictably leads to violence.
Not content to be a haunting, observational portrait of teen alienation in a royally screwed up world (like Terry Zwigoff's superb Ghost World), Cuesta lacks the confidence in his own work to end on an ambivalent note. It's typical of unimaginative cinema to wrap things up with a bullet, sparing the writers from actually having to come up with a complex, philosophical note. In this regard, L.I.E. (and countless other indie films) shares something in common with blockbuster action films: problems are solved when the obstacle is removed. How often does real life work this way? To extend the question: If a movie is striving for realism, do dramatic contrivances destroy the illusion?