Lost boys

L.I.E. takes wrong turns in depicting explosive relationship

You don’t want your kids to take candy from John Harrigan, the most unsettling, ambiguous character in Michael Cuesta’s L.I.E. Played by veteran character actor Brian Cox, “Big John” makes a first impression as a familiar neighborhood figure, a pushy retired soldier who strikes up easy, back-slapping camaraderie with working joes. He’s the kind of guy who sings Irish ditties at parties and whose doorbell and car horn both play the Marines hymn.

Harrigan also has a penchant for teenaged boys, and L.I.E. occasionally finds him sharking down streets in his vintage red GTO, prowling for young pick-ups. He can be brazen about his inclination, at one point saying outright, “I’m the best cocksucker in the whole Western hemisphere.” But he also reveals guilt about his pedophilia; when told, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he admits that he is.

Outside of a North American Man/Boy Love Association meeting, Harrigan would be branded as a chickenhawk, a deviant and a predator, but he’s also an unexpectedly sensitive man, and L.I.E. dares the audience to look close enough to see his humanity. In recounting an unlikely friendship between Harrigan and a lonely teenager, L.I.E. often does justice to some of the most provocative content imaginable, but the film’s plot twists and tone undermine its stronger qualities.

The title stands for “Long Island Expressway,” and it’s the thoroughfare where Howie Blitzer’s (Paul Franklin Dano) mother died in a car crash. His father (Bruce Altman) has taken up with a younger woman, and Howie frequently skips school to hang with older peers, who pass time by razzing each other about sex and breaking into houses.

Howie is less interested in thrills or material gain than simply spending time with Gary (Billy Kay), a pierced, tattooed and vivacious youth who proposes they leave Long Island to seek their fortunes in California. L.I.E.’s first section explores the nearly subliminal bonds of their relationship, with a particularly delicate, engrossing scene cutting between each boy alone, exploring the bedroom of the other.

They are caught breaking into Harrigan’s house, and shortly thereafter Gary skips town, leaving Howie alone to be confronted by Harrigan, who’s capable of having both a sympathetic ear and a lustful eye. He teaches Howie to drive his GTO (Howie’s own father having no time for driving lessons), but he also shows him pornographic films in his den of iniquity — which looks more like a suburban rumpus room of iniquity. (The Motion Picture Association of America gave L.I.E. an NC-17 rating, although it should be pointed out that only two scenes involve nudity or sexual acts, and those between heterosexual people of legal age.)

We can believe that Howie would gradually respond to Harrigan’s attention and acts of kindness, but this part of the story moves too quickly. Too soon Howie starts bantering with the older man, quoting Walt Whitman and flirting, even though it seems too soon for wounded Howie to trust him.

Dano, Kay and especially Cox interact superbly, conveying the conflicted facets of their characters, and L.I.E. is most effective the closer it stays to them. But the subplots with Howie’s father and the film’s moments of “shocking” humor nearly always ring false, like Gary’s dimwitted friend who’s having sex with his own sister and gets taunted that they’ll have a two-headed baby. The same dope’s dirty malapropisms (he brags about seeing a woman’s “clint”) come across as the cheapest possible comic relief.

Unfortunately, the script, written by Stephen M. Ryder, Michael Cuesta and Gerald Cuesta, loses its realistic precision whenever it turns to the father, from the shot of him wearing a hardhat during sex with his girlfriend, to the meeting with his lawyer, who has a fatal heart attack in the middle of a joke. Likewise, the only time we don’t believe Cox’s Harrigan is when he sniffs a torn piece of Gary’s pants pocket.

The bogus, contrived tone of those scenes extend the violent, would-be shocking conclusion of the film. It’s as though Cuesta and the writers stopped being inspired by life experience and the truth of their characters, and started trying to imitate the events of previous movies — like the way people who abruptly listen to opera are probably about to meet an unlucky fate. The film may be willing to explore dark psychological corners, but it punishes transgressions in a surprisingly didactic way.

The film begins and ends with Howie’s voice-over describing the Long Island Expressway: “You’ve got the lanes going East, you’ve got the lanes going West — and you’ve also got the lanes going straight to hell.” It sounds like the remark of an angst-ridden adolescent, and you be more inclined to forgive it if Howie weren’t supposed to be more articulate, and if the line weren’t offered twice. Too often L.I.E.’s own filmmakers don’t seem mature enough to meet the challenge of their own material.??