In 2011, the moviegoing public finally received a response to the burning question, “What could a personal film from Roland Emmerich possibly look like?” That answer came in the form of “Anonymous,” a madman’s speculation on the true origins of the corpus of writing popularly attributed to William Shakespeare that played it fast and loose with historical accuracy. And yet, even with this revealing glimpse into the obscurer nooks of the blockbuster maestro’s tortured psyche, hardcore Emmerich-heads yearned for a more intimate project from the notoriously spectacle-driven, largely apolitical filmmaker.
“Stonewall,” the latest and most immediately revealing effort from the openly gay director, retains the freely interpretive relationship with historical facts witnessed in “Anonymous,” but to decidedly more damaging ends. Emmerich reimagines the storied New York riots that ignited the queer rights movement with a cast of characters amalgamated from different real-life figures (with a few key exceptions) and some conjured purely from the depths of his imagination. The result of this fictional history has already ruffled a few feathers with advocacy groups peeved that the film frames a group of gay men as the leaders of a revolution started by trans women of color. While Emmerich’s intentions may be pure, he lacks the delicacy, intelligence, and skill to do right by a premise rife with potential for disaster — a topic in which the man is all too well-versed.
The most glaring fiction of “Stonewall” is its lead character, a white-bread country boy who goes by the all-American name of Danny Winters (a rightfully pretty Jeremy Irvine). Danny’s efforts to suppress what he fears are hideously unnatural stirrings in his breast are to no avail, and he can’t stop himself from hooking up with his high school’s star quarterback at Makeout Point. They’re discovered, of course, and Danny must flee home for New York, of course, where he falls in with a surrogate family of street-wise gay hustlers, of course. Really, every clause of plot summary could be fairly amended with “of course”; every single one of Emmerich’s moves can be seen coming from several miles away, and yet, not because they adhere to any semblance of historical fact. Somehow, Emmerich makes a severely underserved narrative feel groaningly familiar.
The thick blanket of badness that covers the entirety of the film doesn’t do its problematic subtextual politics any favors, either. At the very least, Emmerich can hold his head high in the knowledge that he wasn’t responsible for the astonishingly thick script — that distinction belongs to Jon Robin Baitz, the pen behind such stirring moments as one during the climactic riot, in which our hero raises his fist to the heavens and screams “GAY POWER!” Come to think of it, that’s really what most of the film feels like: a fist shoved in a face and words howled into ears. The insulting obviousness with which characters make declarations about the Change That Must Come and the Injustice That Has Been Suffered For Too Long strip the film of any potential for resonant poignance with its intended audience. Emmerich’s freedom fighters speak not like human beings, but political mouthpieces designed to express the simplest ideas for the simplest-minded audiences.
To the film’s credit, it doesn’t gloss over the thriving industry of prostitution that kept many of the Stonewallers fed. Not to the film’s credit, everything else. Irvine does the best with the hand he’s dealt (which, in this instance, equates to a two of clubs, a seven of diamonds, an UNO draw-four, a twenty-dollar Monopoly bill, and a Pokémon card), but can’t possibly overcome the brutal handicap of Baitz’s dialogue. The other actors fare far more poorly; as Danny’s fast friend Ray, the actually-gay Jonny Beauchamp, lisps and screeches his way through his role like a straight high-schooler trying on homosexuality for a school play. Danny’s unflaggingly tolerant kid sister (Joey King) is an absolute nightmare as well, her every cloying message of total support like a rusty nail driven directly into the frontal lobe.
Though perhaps this is all simply a matter of perspective. In a way, “Stonewall” is a miraculous film, in that it makes that which was once thought to be impossible quite real. Those of us who thought we’d never miss Emmerich’s days of stewing up overproduced cataclysm-pornography have been roundly bested by this combination of falsehood and shameless feel-goodery. If “Stonewall” is what it means for Emmerich to make an artist’s statement, please, for the love of god, someone start setting up dynamite charges around the Seven Wonders of the World so that he might return to his wheelhouse. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.