Craig Lucas‘ “The Dying Gaul” features a wonderful, winking twist: A studio head offers a neophyte scribe one million dollars for his beautiful autobiographical screenplay about a man dealing with the death of his lover to AIDS — as long as he changes the central relationship into a heterosexual one, of course. Taking its own title from that script, this engagingly postmodern film about selling-out in Hollywood purposively retains the very elements which Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) would have Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) negate, as the former ends up paradoxically pursuing the constantly cruised latter with an unabashedly spirited lust. Playwright-turned-screenwriter and now film director Craig Lucas manages to construct a movie nearly as deeply uncompromised as Robert would like his own to be, with writing so tightly structured and characterization so finely wrought that he shames and makes ludicrous the idea of substitution: The homosexual “content” here couldn’t be elided lest the entire narrative unravel.
For a first-time director, Lucas is surprisingly deft: From the moment Jeffrey and Robert shake hands in silhouetted slow motion, we know they’ll embark on a clandestine affair. Thankfully, rather than playing into hackneyed expectations, Lucas mixes up the usual party line of such scenarios. Jeffrey isn’t languishing in a loveless marriage, closeted and tortured; he happens to be a charming bisexual rogue who wants a bit of every kind of action. Even more refreshing, his relationship with his wife, a former screenwriter herself, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), remains healthily arduous after many years, his affection for his children genuine. Both straight and gay sex scenes are portrayed with a matter-of-fact candor often unseen in American cinema, and this lends “The Dying Gaul” an appealing rawness that stands in contrast to the stylistic choice to frequently shoot characters through glass walls and windows as if figurines in a display case. And brilliantly filling in the characters’ alternately alluring and repugnant qualities are the three principals, each amazing in their own intricate ways (Sarsgaard in particular), on whose fearless performances the film hinges, and succeeds.
What we don’t know from this triangular set-up is just how gloriously fucked-up the whole thing will become. Seldom in movies are there no signposts to show you the way; more often you see the next plot point coming for miles. So it’s with blood-tingling pleasure that you realize you have no clue in this case as to your destination. The tone jarringly shifts once Elaine logs onto an internet chat room for gay men which Robert confesses he frequents. An anonymous desire to know more about this person with whom she shares an easy camaraderie leads to the discovery that he’s having an affair with her husband. While “The Dying Gaul” may be lumped into the psychological thriller category, the designation hardly does it justice; instead of relying on annoyingly convoluted twists, it builds suspense through the unpredictability of its darkly human creatures. Their motivations — just when you think you know them — again fall into inscrutability. The tension lies in the wondering, as each variously occupies the roles of victim and tormentor in a strange sadistic dance revolving around the divulgence of key secrets and ensuing reactions to those revelations. That Lucas makes riveting a story which mostly comes down to two people IM-ing alone in front of their computers deserves no end of praise.
But while the writer-director seemingly wants to situate his film within a long-standing tradition of Hollywood demystifications like “The Bad and the Beautiful” or “The Player,” “The Dying Gaul” remains more of an anomaly — a good thing — except that he doesn’t seem to recognize the uniqueness of his own creation. “Sunset Boulevard“‘s disastrous end sweepingly condemns a system that uses and then carelessly discards. But “Gaul” is human-sized and so deserves a more complicated, less mythic payoff. Because of this, the irrevocably tragic ending feels somehow unfulfilling, something of a conventional cop-out in an otherwise genre-defying film. True, “The Dying Gaul” starts off with a familiar riff, to the tune of opening images featuring those iconic Paramount arches and interiors of the impossibly luxurious mogul’s mansion. But though set in Hollywood, Lucas’s film isn’t so much about unmasking the glamour to expose the seediness of the ruthless dream-making machinery beneath as it is a focused study on three people, each with their own pains and perversities, and the ways in which their specific combination ultimately results in combustion. [Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]
Take 2 By Michael Joshua Rowin
Robert’s soul is up for grabs in “The Dying Gaul.” At first he sells it for a boat-load of cash, his screenplay about AIDS becoming property of an entertainment machine that will chew it up and spit it back out as a spineless heterosexual weepie. A shrewd, hypocritical Hollywood producer (himself soulless?) further corrupts Robert — the purchase of the script also includes the purchase of sexual favors. While Robert cynically indulges these manipulations, the tragic element of “The Dying Gaul” takes root when the producer’s wife, Elaine, exploits Robert’s emotional vulnerability for her own selfish reasons.
That the soul’s last temptation (Peter Sarsgaard perfectly conveys the drained humanity in Robert’s features) is achieved via the corporeal vacuum of cyberspace is “The Dying Gaul”‘s most captivating line of moral questioning–certainly not by detailing unethical practices of obtaining personal information and concealing identity within chat-room anonymity but by questioning the line between gullibility and faith when Robert, a fragile Buddhist, starts to believe in the reincarnation of his partner’s soul as a digital essence that communicates through instant messaging and email. What we want to hear from those who can no longer speak to us, and what we want to tell others without them knowing we’re the tellers–these are the impossibilities made possible within the non-physical landscape of cyberspace, buttressed by diffusive loneliness, where Robert and Elaine seek answers from sources they know too much or too little about.
Unfortunately, “The Dying Gaul”‘s ideas never achieve their promised fulfillment. The nihilistic conclusion may fit the film’s morality play pretensions, but it’s ultimately a cop out. Everyone’s cruel and deceptive and disillusioned; the film’s themes and characters are swallowed up by a tragic sweep it never earns. But the film’s peak — in which identities become suffused as voices merge on the soundtrack and the fantasy of reunion with the departed gains credence — nonetheless compellingly dramatizes the frightening territory of the soul in a technological age where, as Elaine states, “decisions are informed by your desires.”
Take 3 By Michael Koresky
Each of the three characters in the often thrilling actors’ showcase “The Dying Gaul” attempt to maintain control over their own lives and desires, yet it’s hopelessly apparent from the very beginning that they’re all simply caught up in the machinery. A Hollywood morality play that less recalls the through-the-looking-glass dreamscapes of “Sunset Boulevard” and “Mulholland Drive” than those eerie mid-Nineties existential nightmares set in the strangulating claustrophobia of Los Angeles like Robert Altman‘s “Short Cuts” and Michael Tolkin‘s wondrous, unheralded “The New Age,” Lucas’s film is a refreshingly cerebral and enthrallingly melodramatic workout that both plays off of its three principals’ best acting traits and also pushes them all to new realms of expression.
With its austere architecture and burnished hillside homes, “The Dying Gaul” begins as a wide-angle view of a doomed cityscape and then prowls ever closer to its actors, finally moving in for the kill. Campbell Scott, often unctuous to the point of negation, here finds his perfect outlet as Jeffrey, the married, closet-bisexual studio bigwig who comes on to the writer Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), an emotional mess from the death of his lover to AIDS, whom he has forced to excise all gay content from the script he has just purchased for a wild amount of money. Stuck in the middle, yet hardly as the victim, is Elaine (Patricia Clarkson, moving effortlessly from pathos to scorn to self-righteousness), who becomes the prime string-puller in an increasingly hectic and manipulative triangle.
World-weary and site-specific, “The Dying Gaul” comes across as a fittingly angry film, cynical to the point of complete dissolution yet elegant in its delineation of that anger: Lucas just seems fed up with a lot of types of “businesses”–of self-delusion, of studio homophobia, of false prophets. Most memorable of all is how Lucas’s script uses technology to palpate the edges of the ethereal; one character’s belief that there is an afterlife that uses the internet as a conduit to our reality is no mere plot device but a seriously disturbing evocation of a planet on which all communication barriers have broken down, in this case even from one world to the next. Thus, all boundaries break wide open–even that between pain and pleasure: Sarsgaard, whose shattering, uncondescending performance here is his greatest work yet, best expresses this in a sheer moment of orgasmic embarrassment that encapsulates the whole film. Even at his most cathartic moments, his happiness is cut short.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and contributor to Film Comment.]