Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 09 December 2005
Source New Yorker DVD
Suburbia: every director’s inspiration for veiled indulgence and sin. Writers like Todd Solondz and David Lynch have taken those aligned dollhouses and infused them with dreamlike aberrancy—little stucco pills of duplicity. Anything can happen along those boulevards and avenues and, in L.I.E., almost everything does.
Howie Blitzer is a fifteen-year-old boy who lost his mother on the Long Island Expressway and is now loosing his father to work. Slowly, Howie turns to skipping school and following his friends on burglary sprees, soon forming an infatuation with the leader, a hoodlum named Gary, who makes his money doing sexual favors for older men. It’s the side of his life he hides from Howie, from everybody.
It’s through Gary that we meet “Big” John Harrigan. Big John, an ex-marine and pillar of the community, becomes the focus of Gary’s breaking-and-entering bender. Together, he and Howie break in and steal two antique pistols from his basement. Big John, not one to concede, tracks down Howie in his orange Cutlass—a foreboding stain of color in an overly gray-green environment. When Howie can’t return what was stolen, Big John’s pederast mind begins formulating. When Howie’s dad is arrested by the FBI, it’s Big John who takes Howie in.
The true genius of L.I.E. is Brian Cox. He takes an outwardly undesirable role and makes it his own, giving depth and life to Big John. With tranquil eyes and a voice that seem to plead for our understanding and forgiveness, Big John never becomes a caricature. Even as he delivers a monologue about fellatio over the sounds of a porn movie, Big John exudes a perverse aura of calm and confidence. It’s a disturbing scene, one that turns the movie on its heels and Howie’s perceptions on their sides. From that point on, you can’t escape.
Despite the criticism, the movie is infused with surprising moments of wit and happiness. A scene of the boys sharing their misguided knowledge of sex over a pizza, Big John teaching Howie how to shave, then singing “Danny Boy” to the off-beat stammer of a piano—they all lend themselves to authenticity. At first the relationship between Howie and Big John goes from standoffish to a game of cat-and-mouse, with Howie using his boyishness to tease Big John. A scene towards the end of the movie has Big John cooking breakfast, and as he dances around the kitchen he becomes a man with no history, no need to beseech redemption. It’s a flash of humanity that makes you, for some odd reason, smile. In that moment, everything is at peace, and you realize that he’s gone from being an all-around pervert to a surrogate father.
Whether that is good or not depends on how you view the story. Most seem to agree that L.I.E. is a story of redemption—two completely different souls looking for acceptance and absolution. But in the end there is no salvation—something we know from the beginning. Director Michael Cuesta and writer Stephen M. Ryder avoid using the same coming-of-age formula that pervades in so many other movies, and that means no happy ending. For most of L.I.E. we’re forced to watch a miserable teenage boy search for contentment, and we realize the movie can’t succeed. If it did, it would become a farce. We hope for the best while knowing the worst. There can’t be a happy ending, not this time.