Craig Lucas' hateful Dying Gaul. Plus, Walk the Line never wobbles.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Nov. 18 2005 1:23 PM

The Living Gall

Craig Lucas' hateful Dying Gaul. Plus, Walk the Line never wobbles.

Campbell Scott, looking languid
Click image to expand.
Campbell Scott, looking languid

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.

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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.)

"The implication is that because of Elaine's cruelty toward the screenwriter (when she discovers that he's sleeping with her husband, she pretends to be the ghost of his dead lover communicating with him via the Internet), she is at least partly responsible for her own demise. And Jeffrey, the father of those children, bears some responsibility, too: for using Robert sexually—while masquerading as a straight man and attempting to purge the gay content from Robert's prized screenplay.

"This strikes me as a gay persecution/revenge fantasia, and it's reasonable to infer that it was fueled by Lucas' grief over Rene's death (and possibly his experiences in Hollywood). And I take issue with your implication that I don't object strenuously to heterosexual revenge fantasies against gays—of which there are, I agree, many. I try to be an equal-opportunity disparager of this kind of grossness, in whatever form it takes. But I am especially sensitive to (and have written ad nauseam about) movies that exploit the death of small children for cheap shocks.

"Let me add that I regret very much if the review comes off as homophobic. It certainly is intemperate."

Phoenix and Witherspoon are pitch-perfect. Click image to expand.
Phoenix and Witherspoon are pitch perfect

The news that Joaquin Phoenix had been cast as Johnny Cash in the new biopic Walk the Line (Columbia) was a head-scratcher. Phoenix is a disconcertingly brilliant actor—subtle and true, the kind of performer who can make huge emotional leaps without calling attention to his acting. But Johnny Cash played by a slender, sharp-faced baritone? He seemed wrong physically and even more wrong vocally. How could that voice come out of that guy?

Well, there is a disconnect, but the performance is so spectacular that your brain will make the correction. Phoenix's scarred upper lip (he was born with it) actually evokes Cash on stage, the expression somewhere between sardonic and sneering but in the end, neither. He does all the singing himself, dropping his voice a couple of octaves and nailing Cash's cellar-dweller tone. On the lowest notes you get a bellows verging on a belch that doesn't quite have that Johnny Cash thrust. But I'm nitpicking. Even at his weakest, you close your eyes and hear Cash with a mild head cold.

If you're going to make a Johnny Cash biopic, you need to account for one thing above all: that indelible tension between self-disgust and resignation. That Man in Black thing: the height of cool, yet the mark of a soul in mourning. Those vocals: "steady like a train," says someone in the movie—yet charged with the fear of what Nick Lowe called "The Beast in Me" (a song that Cash sang with simple grace on his first Rick Rubin comeback album).

In spite of its standard biopic gaps and simplifications, Walk the Line gets the big things right. Directed by James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted) from a script credited to him and Gill Dennis, it dramatizes only the first and most tumultuous part of Cash's life—up to 1968, when he killed 'em at Folsom Prison and finally persuaded June Carter to tie the knot. The film actually opens at Folsom. Cash's band vamps while the singer waits offstage, pensively fingering the blade of a buzz saw—like the one that (cue flashback) killed his beloved older brother.

That's not a promising transition, but over the years Mangold has lightened his touch (his first film was, appropriately enough, Heavy), and besides: It's the pain on Phoenix's face that sells the moment. In scenes from Cash's childhood (when he was known as "J.R."), we see the source of his damaged psyche: a drunk and abusive father, played with typical, unshowy intensity by Robert Patrick, and that nurturing older brother (Lucas Till) whose death engenders both anguish and guilt. The loss permeates Phoenix's performance—and the film.

The first half of Walk the Line chronicles Cash's rise to stardom after working his way from gospel to rockabilly under the tutelage of Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts). And along the way we get terrific impersonations of Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday), and, of course, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon)—onstage, in the wings, and in the caravan on a Sun Records tour. You'd get your money's worth from that show!

The second half is Cash's descent into booze and speed and barbiturates—and a long, long downer it is. Fortunately, Witherspoon's Carter gives every scene a lift. She's marvelous showing Carter playing Carter, the sassy countrified caricature with the helium drawl: This is Witherspoon the gorgeous comedian getting inside the head of another gorgeous comedian and dazzling you with the artistry of both performers. And she sings up a storm, too. The surprise is her intensity when Carter is offstage. In a moving scene on bar stools, Cash parries her self-deprecation by confessing his long infatuation with her music, while Carter gently elicits his long-repressed grief about his brother. The exposition is woven into the drama, and the actors are so focused (Was Joaquin dredging up memories of his own lost brother?) that the movie loses what I call the "biopic spread"—the sense of filmmakers skipping along the surface of a life, from milestone to milestone, and never stopping for its subjects just to be.

Apart from a typical biopic groaner when Carter tells the wired, drunken Cash, "You cain't walk no line," the sins of the screenplay are ones of omission. Ginnifer Goodwin is very affecting as Cash's first wife, but the part is shaped to make her a drag on his high-flying artistry. Another gap: When Cash is busted for possession and his daddy says, "Now you won't have to work so hard to make people think you've been to jail," it would have been a great opportunity to explore what Cash's faux-jailbird persona meant to him. And the film makes very little of Carter's history of bad marriages. She seems so stable and wholesome around Cash: Was she just drawn to unwholesome, unstable men?

On the other hand, Walk the Line isn't littered with Freudian biopic signposts. Some of its best moments are wordless feats of conjuring: When the police find drugs in Cash's suitcase, Phoenix's look is defiant, resigned, amused, stricken, sulky, and busted all at once. You see it as a metaphor for his life—as Johnny on the spot. ...

... For anyone in Washington, D.C., in the mood for ethics and a movie, I'll be in town on behalf of my Orthodox rabbi brother's Jewish outreach group. No, no proselytizing—certainly not on my end, anyway. Just a screening (for free) of the good anti-vigilante picture Changing Lanes, featuring Ben Affleck (in probably his best performance) and Samuel L. Jackson as fender-bender avengers. It's at 7 p.m. at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I Street, N.W. As longtime readers know (and are maybe sick of) I preach a mean sermon on the subject of righteous violence … 6:20 a.m. PT

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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