L.I.E is a film that you can’t trust: what do I mean by this? I will explain below. L.I.E is in one way a disturbing, ambiguous and important attempt to broach the taboo, yet very topical, subject of paedophilia with sensitivity and without exploitation or hysteria. On the other hand it can also be viewed as a somewhat warped coming-of-age drama; charting the difficulties young Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) faces in simultaneously coping with the peculiarities of puberty on top of becoming increasingly estranged from his corrupt businessman father (Bruce Altman) and recently losing his mother in a road accident. Whichever way you perceive “LIE” (and it is a film that will evoke strong and contrasting opinions regarding its content) the events and images contained within resonate deeply and lastingly in the memory.
The title acronym refers to the Long Island Expressway, a motorway that connects the leafy suburbs of Long Island with New York City. The road has a specific morbid relevance to Howie; it’s where his mother was killed, and its concrete expanses hold both repulsion and fascination for him. He seems to be constantly drawn there through one reason or another. In one particularly powerful scene that is repeated during the film, we see Howie balancing on the railings of an overpass as the rat race continues on below completely oblivious to his anguish.
Howie’s young existence is in terminal freefall as the events of the film begin to unfold. In the opening exchanges we see that his self-absorbed father is paying less attention to him with each passing day, he is having difficulties at school and he is becoming more and more embroiled in an introspective world. Howies’ sterile home offers him little but material comfort and he becomes charmed into bouts of juvenile delinquency by Gary (Billy Kay) an older, more streetwise boy. Eventually, in the aftermath of a botched petty burglary, Howie meets “Big John” (Brian Cox), at which point his problems become compounded, and the audience begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
This is where the film becomes extremely intricate and somewhat unsettling. It deliberately sets up a trap to ensnare the viewer into uncharted waters of ambiguity, making a number of very serious points about the issues of paedophilia and the cinematic concerns relating to audience/character identification, spectatorship and voyeurism.
Howies’ relationship with Big John is highly problematic; we are allowed glimpses into John’s world that signify the sort of man he is, and the sort of personal habits he prefers. Yet outwardly he is a charming, well-respected man in a small town, a genuine pillar of the community with lots of connections that cover up his dark habits.
In this way the film plays around with perception, utilising a number of misleading turns at key moments to create a “will he/won’t he” high wire act, that the viewer is forced to walk. Big John obviously has a sickening appetite for young boys, but his relationship with Howie is at times touching and heart warming. Sensing a rare intelligence in Howie, Big John encourages him to look beyond himself, and realise his dreams as a writer, to (ironically) get away from his current situation. Big John essentially takes the place of Howie’s absent father: loving, supportive and encouraging. He is Howie’s shoulder to cry on and the outlet for his inner demons. In these powerful scenes Big John is the delicate patriarch.
This ambivalence in Brian Cox’s character (enhanced by his subtle portrayal) is exactly what makes the film interesting, and also hard to judge. On one level we see a friendship that grows between a young boy and an older man, one of equality and mutual understanding that brings them both moments of joy during difficult circumstances. On another level we see a sick paedophile; vociferous and unashamed in the pursuit of his latest young conquest, employing a variety of tactics in order to ensnare him like all the rest. The blurring of this distinction underpins the entire film, as the narrative snakes in one direction and then the other, and the films tries to make a valuable point about that paranoia and fear surrounds these issues in contemporary society: Can a grown man have a platonic relationship with a teenage boy in this day and age, or is it ALWAYS underpinned with sexual desire?
Technically, the film utilises a number of devices derived from documentary filmmaking. The scenes and locations are naturally lit, and the camera work is often hand held, centring in on faces in extreme close-up. Inevitable comparisons will be made to the films of Larry Clark (“Kids”, “Bully”) on the basis of the filmmaking style. Yet, Clarks’ films are much more exploitative of the teenage condition and strive for little in the way of understanding, “LIE” is much more sensitive in its treatment of similar topics.
The teenage body is overtly sexualised, photographed as an object of desire and fascination. The camera lingers long on Howie’s pre-pubescent body, especially from the point of view of the sexual predators in the film; firstly Gary and then Big John. The films’ often disarming use of comedy is a jolting addition to the material, and you often catch yourself laughing during moments of extreme tension, often as a release. Many of the best comedy lines are reserved for Big John, who is possessed of a dry, deadpan wit, which adds to his aura as a complicated enigma, and possibly enhances the viewers’ sense of complicity with this figure we are supposed to revile.
A film with a lot of serious points to make, “L.I.E” doesn’t set out to moralise, preach or shock unduly and at no point does the material ever become exploitative or gratuitous. The performances are exemplary, and the interplay between Paul Franklin Dano and Brian Cox is, at times, spellbinding. The audience is gripped in a perpetual state of nervous anticipation in every scene they share. The naivety and helplessness that Howie displays juxtaposed with Big John’s sinister, but at times delicate and fragile, presence lurking in the shadows and leafy avenues is what really binds the entire film together.
Disturbing, touching and ultimately full of hope, “L.I.E” is imperfect, yet thought provoking cinema. Brave enough to tackle and expose a contemporary problem without drawing concrete or hysterical conclusions, it lets the audience make its own mind up. A rare privilege.
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