The Dying Gaul (Strand Releasing) is a sour little psychodrama that has the compression, the coiled ferocity, of a Greek tragedy. It's potent; it's horrible. Craig Lucas, who adapted his own play and makes his directorial debut, knows his dramaturgy: This thing is layered with subtexts and sub-subtexts, and two of its three characters have enough complexity to keep you guessing until the final (ugly—and spurious—and unforgivable) twist.
In Lucas' best-known plays, Reckless and Prelude to a Kiss, life is an absurdist dream with overtones of myth, and the playwright's hopelessness is fully earned. But the death of Lucas' longtime companion Norman Rene (the director of Lucas' plaintive elegy to the first generation of AIDS victims, Longtime Companion) seems to have pushed him over the edge. In The Dying Gaul, he has concocted a gay revenge fantasy—a story of exploitation, cruelty, and bloody retribution.
Lucas' alter ego is Robert (Peter Sarsgaard, more Malkovichian than ever), a rising gay screenwriter who's in mourning for an older lover. His hot screenplay, with the flamboyantly uncommercial title (wink-wink) The Dying Gaul, is apparently so brilliant that studio executive Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) is willing to pay $1 million for it—as long as Robert will change the two men at the center to a man and a woman. That million would change Robert's life. But it's hell to have to use his word processor's find-and-replace key to turn Maurice into Maggie with a photo of his dead ex looking on.
So far, so straightforward: To betray one's own kind or not? The twist is that Jeffrey, that spokesman for mainstream heterosexual repressiveness with the Malibu estate and the trophy wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), wants desperately to sleep with Robert. And Elaine—a smart woman sentenced to a life of shopping and swimming in the big pool and playing mommy to two kids—finds Robert fascinating, too. His pseudonymous, disembodied wanderings through online gay chat rooms make her feel more confined than ever. Perhaps she could meet up with him in one of them and break through the surface of her life ...
The Dying Gaul is rarely facile. Even its shallowest character, Jeffrey, is allowed to have intellectual stature—to understand and acknowledge the ramifications of his most vulgar arguments. And the central psychological twist is thrilling: the way that Elaine's empathy for Robert suddenly—when she discovers his relationship with her husband—veers into sadism; the way her compassion and cruelty end up reinforcing each other.
But despite Clarkson's finely etched performance (and soulfulness), there's a Mamet-like shroud over the part, a cap on the character's humanity. Lucas doesn't have Mamet's boundless relish for power games, and he doesn't depict what happens to this trio as the inevitable outcome of all intimacy. The vision here is more specific: Lucas is giving in to his rage at these opportunistic, entitled heteros who exploit our poor gay hero's talent, loneliness, and grief. He's saying, "Never underestimate the vindictiveness of a gay playwright in the age of AIDS."
I'm not going to spell out the collateral damage, but I found the ending cheap, contrived, and genuinely disgusting. The Dying Gaul is like Ira Levin's Deathtrap in Off-Broadway (and indie-cinema) clothes—a heartless stunt. The movie opens with a quote from Moby-Dick: "Woe to him who sets out to please rather than appall." Since this doesn't apply to any of the film's characters, I assume it's meant to justify Lucas' own work. To which I can only respond, "You can be happy now, Craig. You're appalling." ... 10:25 a.m. PT
Postscript: A reader writes to say he found the above review itself "appalling"—insensitive to Craig Lucas, who lost his life partner, and implicitly homophobic. He adds: "Many of the movies you review are dripping with anti-gay animus, but you let it pass."
My response is below: Be advised that it spells out the ending of The Dying Gaul.
"I'm sorry you found the review 'appalling.' But the film ends with the screenwriter, Robert, murdering the wife, Elaine, and two (innocent) small children. (The children are collateral damage; Robert poisons the wife and the kids happen to be in the car with her.)