“Four,” director Joshua Sanchez’s remarkably honest, empathic adaptation of Christopher Shinn’s play about a quartet of lovelorn folks in a modern age, works on you slowly. It’s taken me about a week since seeing it at the New Orleans Film Festival to suss out just how complex and world weary it is, and how surprisingly beautiful.
Hazily composed, even dreamlike — most of the action takes place under the cover of dark — “Four” glides past truck stops, bars, and basketball courts; it shimmers somewhere in the space between who we are and who we pretend to be. From the outset, its characters lie and dissemble, play and put on. Joe (Wendell Pierce), a middle-aged husband and father, picks up teenaged June (Emory Cohen) online for an illicit, possibly illegal, sexual liaison; Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) at once doubts and desires her cocky new paramour, Dexter (E.J. Bonilla). Whatever their reasons, all share a skill for, and a belief in, negotiating the truth: as Joe tells June when they arrive in their dingy motel room, it’s a place where “you can reinvent yourself — or become yourself.”
The intertwined plots of the film’s developing relationships, though they come together in an intimate, highly charged climax that revived my faith in the powers of montage, are perhaps less important than the cast’s precision in rendering a nuanced array of human possibilities. Both the motel-room rendezvous of two closeted gay characters and the attraction between two sharp, somewhat jaded teens could drift into the tawdry, but “Four” never relaxes its discomfiting sense of vulnerability. It cuts to the quick.
In particular, Pierce — a character actor of the first order, whose work with David Simon on “The Wire” and “Treme” has always been admirably rough-edged — bravely finds the poignant self-deception in an otherwise villainous character. With an open, almost hangdog face, sweating through his shirt during sex, Joe is at once pathetic and predatory, a tough feat of balance. The low rumble of Pierce’s voice, tonguing the word “faggot” with evident self-loathing, conveys the raw power that homophobia has to humiliate and take apart its victims. No film I’ve seen has so closely approximated the sting one feels on being the word’s target, the receiving end of the dagger.
Even attempting to take up such questions marks “Four” as an authentic discovery — a film that deals with gay identity in the context of multiple forms of love and sex, which seems to understand the control that secrecy provides as well as the consequences it inevitably reaps. If I found myself wishing the other shoe need not drop, and dismayed by some clumsy symbolism in the second half, it may only be that much of “Four” marshals the kind of emotional naturalism that makes plot devices and codas unnecessary. As Joe says to June, “You want someone to make you real.” Once a film does that, the rest is noise.
“Four” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, and recently screened at the BFI London Film Festival, the New Orleans Film Festival, and the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.