l.i.e. (2002)

director: michael cuesta

brian cox, paul franklin dano, billy kay

The Long Island Expressway is the subject, and setting, of the film’s title, but it’s also a rather blunt statement of one of the film’s themes. Asserting that the happy, prosperous, "normal" life lived in the suburbs of big cities is an enormous lie is hardly new, but it’s been awhile since a film put the case so sharply, or using subject matter so inherently troubling.

Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) and his buddies are a group of hormonally-deranged boys whose afterschool entertainment runs to casually destructive break-and-enters of their neighbour’s houses. Howie’s best friend Gary (Billy Kay) is a charismatic delinquent whose future screams looming tragedy, and their relationship has begun to take on disquietingly sexual overtones, which become suddenly amplified when they’re nearly caught breaking into the home of Big John, an obnoxiously charming ex-Marine with a rather poorly-disguised secret life.

Big John is a pedophile who offhandedly blackmails Gary and insinuates himself into Howie’s life. As played by Brian Cox, Big John is probably the most troubling screen villain to emerge in 
years, no small feat considering that Cox, a magnificent character actor with a talent for humanizing truly evil beings, has played Hermann Goering as well as the first screen incarnation of Hannibal Lecter. 

He’s a small-town big shot with connections everywhere from the high school guidance councillor to the local police, and when Howie’s dad, a rich widowed contractor, is sent to a Federal prison on construction fraud charges, Howie’s sense of wounded betrayal draws him to Big John.

And it’s here where director Michael Cuesta steers him film into its most troubled waters. Big John’s success – and motivation – as a pedophile comes from his warped paternal nature, as nasty a perversion of a nurturing impulse as can be imagined, but one that offers real comfort to Howie. Big John also finds himself moved by the boy’s trauma, and offers restraint and real empathy instead of seducing the boy. The scenes are powerful and truly dramatic, and creepier than anything in the most explicit horror film.

One scene in particular might become something of a classic: Big John is driving through the Long Island sprawl, his eyes trawling through the crowds of boys loitering and ambling on their way home from school. In the background, Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” plays, a queasy bit of psychedelia that’s suddenly recast as a dirge for the imminent loss of innocence Every now and then Big John picks up the pocket from Howie’s jeans, ripped off in the scuffle the previous night, and takes a deep sniff, like some kind of half-man, half-hound. It’s an outrageous, disturbing sequence. 

Humanizing a pedophile is probably something nobody is willing to pay to see in a movie, and it’s hard to imagine L.I.E. attracting a casual moviegoer. Imagine a film by Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) or Harmony Korine (Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy) with a hint of a moral compass that only makes its story more galling and harrowing.