by Barry Meyer
It has lanes going East, and lanes going West, and lanes that go straight to Hell.
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There is this common delusion amongst the average movie go-er that films are merely entertainment, and that if we don’t have fun at a movie, if we don’t purely enjoy it, then that movie is not good. This, of course, comes out of the Hollywood school of thought, where every movie has to be bigger and more sensational than the last, and should involve nothing more than pure spectacle. The notion of entering anything remotely thought-provoking into the movie is just that - a notion. Hollywood’s ideas of being politically or socially conscious is having some guy call a black person a bad name, and then being punched in the mouth, or have something else equally humiliating happen to him in return. It’s the independent studios and filmmakers that have long championed the film with a conscience. And it’s only from the indies that we get uncommon films like L.I.E.
L.I.E. (directed by Michael Cuesta, who also wrote it with Gerald Cuesta and Stephen Ryder) is neither fun, nor is it particularly enjoyable. But it is provocative. And it is interesting. It certainly is not a film that you’d really want to see again, or one that would warrant a special DVD release with extra footage and other bonus goodies. But it is still a good movie.
The focus of this harsh coming of age story is Howard Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano), a 15 year old boy whose troubles metaphorically stem from a stretch of highway called the L.I.E. “The Long Island Expressway,” Howie narrates, “It has lanes going east, and lanes going west, and lanes that go straight to hell! Harry Chapin died on the L.I.E.” Howie’s mother died on the L.I.E., too. Howie’s father, Marty Blitzer (Bruce Altman, Girl Interrupted), laments the death of his wife, saying he stills sees her face everywhere he looks, but his idea of mourning is to have frenzied sex with an impressive young brunette in clear earshot of his son. He also agonizes over his corrupt business dealings, which have gotten him in trouble with the FBI. So Howie, lacking any real parental supervision, must navigate through his own troubled life aimlessly, and alone.
He alleviates some of his stress by accompanying a trio of classmates as they burglarize homes, and he finds himself fixated on the ringleader, Gary (Billy Kay). Howie’s father expresses his dislike for Howie’s new friend, saying, “He smiles too much.” He recognizes that there is something insidious but beguiling behind that smile, but cares not, or dares not, let it worry him, and allows Gary into his home. The two boys become inseparable, and Howie finds himself seduced by Gary’s frank openness on sex and sexuality. Howie’s eagerness to please his new friend soon gets them into a risky situation when they steal some guns from a well-respected neighbor, “Big” John Harrigan (Brian Cox - the original Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter).
After being caught by Big John, Howie learns of Gary’s illicit past, and that Big John isn’t quite the pillar of the community that he appears to be. Big John sets out to seduce Howie, but is side-stepped and becomes more fascinated at the young boy’s hidden, unexplored intellect. The pedophile, as bizarre as it seems, becomes a mentor to Howie, a father figure that seems to care more for the boy than his own dad. With some guidance from his older friend, Howie ends up finding his own way in life.
The subject matter in this film is indeed severe, but the film is not without any redeeming value. It is a film about a boy who struggles to find himself, and to overcome the odds placed against him. He makes friends in less than savory places, but it’s those friends, no matter how nefarious they be, are the ones who help him through. That’s not to say that a devious character like Big John, a pedophile, should be approved of. He shouldn’t be. Even he, himself, admonishes his own depravity. When asked if he is ever ashamed of himself, Big John answers: “Ashamed? I’m ashamed of myself every day.”
The subject matter was also enough to frighten the ratings board. Although the film virtually lacks any explicit or graphic content, and steers clear of easy vulgarities, it was still slapped with an NC-17 rating. It’s not that pedophilic characters are that uncommon in American cinema, and we’re afraid to see them on the big screen. For instance, there is the character played by Steve Buscemi in Con Air. He was quite the despicable guy, who boldly lusted after a prepubescent girl, and who even got the big laugh at the finale of the movie. We seem much less disturbed by these characters if they remain the ugly stereotypes like this, and we’d really rather not put a human face, or real emotions onto our monsters. It’s a fear that if we, or the ratings board, were to show any form of regard of this taboo, that that would mean we somehow condone the taboo. Not true. We can regard a subject with concern, and an interest to learn more about it. But, maybe it’s the knowledge that movies have helped breakdown other former taboos that worries us and the censors.
There was a time when a killer was a killer was a killer, and murder was illicit territory. Murderers were dirty people, and audiences were satisfied with the portrayal of a murderer being nothing but evil. But movies started to dig deeper, and exposed the more human side of these horrible people. Now we have movie after movie where the murdering bad guys are the heroes. Clockwork Orange was so upsetting and reviled at the time it came out, because it boldly pointed the finger at our own society for allowing such heinous criminals to flourish, that it was given an X-rating, and was banned from certain countries. A movie like Clockwork Orange seems tame these days, and we barely blink at its extreme content. And movies like L.I.E. and Happiness come creeping along, trying to put a human face on an otherwise detestable character, dismantling and examining yet another taboo. I certainly don’t think we will ever take a movie like L.I.E. so lightly. But we shouldn’t ignore it either.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past decade.
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