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‘King Cobra’ Is the ‘Boogie Nights’ of Gay Porn (Tribeca Review)

'King Cobra' Is the 'Boogie Nights' of Gay Porn (Tribeca Review)

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Possibly the best film ever made about the business end of America’s gay porn industry (Google makes this an extremely difficult point to research), Justin Kelly’s “King Cobra” is a sensitive and darkly hilarious true crime story that works from top to bottom. Assuming a tragicomic tone that isn’t far removed from the likes of “Boogie Nights,” Kelly’s sordid story takes us back in time to the glory days of 2006, when YouTube was less than a year old and tube sites had yet to make smut a lot less profitable for the people who made it.

Sean Paul Lockhart (“The Fosters” alum Garrett Clayton) is a twink with a twinkle in his eyes, barely out of high school and already chomping at the bit to leave his life behind. Rebranding himself as “Brent Corrigan” and telling his oblivious mom (Alicia Silverstone) that he’s off to a paid internship on a film set (kind of!), he hops a bus that’s heading out of San Diego and towards the verdant suburbs up north. 

Stephen (Christian Slater) is waiting for him at the station. An inconspicuous and firmly closeted guy who fits right into the fabric of suburbia, Stephen runs a lucrative porn empire out of his ticky-tack house. While too old (and too scared) to insert himself directly into the action, he is nevertheless the king of King Cobra videos.

Brent is but Stephen’s newest and most promising discovery, the latest in a presumably long line of “lost” boys whom he’s all too eager to save and set up on their feet. There’s something predatory about that pattern, but Stephen — who’s considerably older than the other characters in this story — is only trying to carve a space out where he’s safe to be himself. He wants to film young boys masturbating in his living room, but he’s going to do it with some Chopin playing over the sound system and a glass of red wine in his free hand. He isn’t trying to exploit these boys, he’s just trying to discover them in the hopes that they might discover him in return. 

Initially, the psychosexual dynamics between the Svengali and his stud are more complicated than the contract that binds them together, but it isn’t long before the two sides of their arrangement blur into one — that’s when things start to get messy.

Brent may be naïve, but it soon becomes clear that the cherubic kid is a lot more cunning than he seems. Clayton expertly negotiates the character’s waning innocence against his budding sense of agency — he isn’t Dirk Diggler, he’s someone who’s done his best to learn from Dirk Diggler’s mistakes.

Meanwhile, down in the valley, The Viper Boyz are getting ready to strike. Joe (James Franco) is an aging bottom with big ambition. A low-rent porn producer who’s in love with his star talent (Keegan Allen as Harlow), Joe rescued the twentysomething from the memory of an abusive childhood and the military community that shamed him out of its ranks, and he strains himself to the breaking point (and beyond) to maintain a certain lifestyle for his big-dicked beau and business partner. 

Franco has played gay almost as often as he’s played straight, so ubiquitous that all of his performances have come to feel equidistant from his true self. He’s seldom been goofier or more tender than he is here. Allen is just as strong, his body rippling with a raw potential for violence. The energy between the two of them is sweet one moment, explosively unstable the next, and compulsively watchable throughout. “It’s so romantic that you would rather kill me than lose me to someone else,” the hulking Harlow says to his “daddy,” the ill-fated couple communicating through the mutual possessiveness of two people who are scared of losing their only source of self-worth.

King Cobra and The Viper Boyz are funhouse mirror images of each other, and Kelly’s film reflects the two competing factions as if they’re locked into a deadly crash-course from the start. His supple direction sees all four of his leads through the same lens while also allowing their individual personalities to fill the screen. Joe and Harlow exist in a scuzzy neon romance that could almost be confused for “Spring Breakers,” while Stephen clings on to the banality of his world like it’s a cloak of invisibility. Brent floats between these two disparate worlds, trying to find a place that feels like home, serving as our guide through a movie that tells the same story through four different bodies.

Each of these men has been isolated by their natures. They have all had to lie, they have all had to leave lives behind. At heart, “King Cobra” compellingly traces the palpable tension between the performative nature of gay porn and the privacy of queer shame. “Please just make me feel wanted,” Stephen pants to his protégée in one of the moving scenes in which Kelly convincingly peels back the scandalousness of his story to reveal the vulnerability that lurks below.

“King Cobra” moves at the breakneck pace of bad decisions, Kelly too often sacrificing nuance for speed, but each of its beats is amplified by a pulsating synth score that cribs from the best of Cliff Martinez. Unfortunately, that music locks the movie into an octave that’s too seedy and industrial to fully serve the humanity of its characters. But Kelly’s script never judges them, even if it has a few good laughs at their expense. On the contrary, it pounds with empathy for those who want to live in a world that’s only comfortable with them in its margins, those men who decide that it’s better to own the sewers than to live on the streets.

Grade: B+

“King Cobra” premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently without U.S. distribution.

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