starring Paul Franklin Dano, Billy Kay, Brian Cox, Bruce Altman
screenplay by Stephen M. Ryder and Michael Cuesta & Gerald Cuesta
directed by Michael Cuesta
by Walter Chaw A marriage of Harmony Korine and Larry Clark's bleak suburban sensibilities and Michael Mann's smooth visual sense, veteran commercial director Michael Cuesta's debut film L.I.E. ("Long Island Expressway") is a coming-of-age drama that includes a trio of knock-out performances, a gritty, wise screenplay, and directorial choices that are pitch perfect. It opens like Korine's Gummo, with a child on an overpass and a voice-over providing brief backstory and mood. Like Gummo, L.I.E. betrays itself as a subversive literary piece: Korine's work following the major tropes of John Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn and Cuesta's film faithful to the philosophy and tone of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Further, L.I.E. sets itself up as one of the most technically accomplished (and restrained) members of the dissident teen social genre, lending a direct thematic explication to the generational paranoia subtexts of 1970s cinema paid visual tribute by Korine/Clark and Todd Solondz.
Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) and Gary (Billy Kay) are best friends given to playing hooky from high school and breaking and entering into swank Long Island homes for cash and jewellery. When they B&E the home of local big-shot Big John (Brian Cox), Howie discovers that Gary has been leading a secret existence as a gay hustler and Big John, an unabashed pedophile, is one of his best customers. Left to question his own burgeoning sexuality and feeling betrayed by his best friend and his father (who was arrested for embezzling from his own construction company), Howie and Big John form a sticky filial/paternal relationship ending in inevitable tragedy.
A pivotal series of events in L.I.E. establish cherub-faced Howie as different from his thuggish pals: He recognizes a Marc Chagall lithograph in Big John's den (Chagall's Russian-Jewish heritage and focus on provincial subjects mirrors Howie's existence), and he quotes the "O solitary me" section of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Tellingly, the section preceding the portion quoted in the film includes these lines:
For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
Howie's transformation at that point in the film from a thing of Blake-ian innocence to experience is clarified in this way, his dumbness transformed to a fallen knowledge and expanded by Cuesta to a collective statement about the loss of American innocence, perhaps in the wake of the school violence epidemic that marked our millennial fin de siècle.
Whitman, himself born in the Huntington a century previous to the one portrayed in Cuesta's film, is the most American of poets: utterly a man of his time and his nation. In his work is the mythology of the United States transforming from the agrarian to the industrial (by way of Emerson's love for the rail) with the Civil War as Shelley's winnowing west wind, heralding a massive cultural metamorphosis. It can be of little surprise that the poet wrote during the tumult of the turn of his own century. While unabashedly optimistic in the ideals held by the founding of this nation, Whitman's work also details the way that the U.S. has despoiled its own ideals for democracy, first in his own alienation as a gay man ("Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me" -Crossing Brooklyn Ferry), and finally through detailing the gulf yet to be breached amongst individuals:
You on the Mississippi and on all the branches and bayous of the Mississippi!
You friendly boatmen and mechanics! You roughs!
You twain! and all processions moving along the streets!
I wish to infuse myself among you till I see it common for you to walk hand in hand.
The portion of Leaves of Grass quoted by Howie in L.I.E. speaks of destiny (The messenger there arous'd, the fire, the sweet hell within,/The unknown want, the destiny of me), while the major visual symbol of the film, the expressway itself, functions as that industrial bridge between things of the child and things of man. Cuesta's lost youths are magnifications of the continuing loss of innocence for an adolescent nation--old enough to have known the pain of betrayal, but young enough to maintain a level of optimism in the future ("the expressway's claimed a lot of lives--but not me").
Cuesta's reference to director Alan Pakula, killed on the L.I.E. and responsible for a trio of seminal paranoia thrillers in the seventies (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men), gains an increased level of resonance as the cinema of that decade was a reflection of another generation's loss of innocence--one fuelled by the triple-assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, the gulf created by the free-love and flower-power movements, and the psychological tumult of Vietnam. The reference to the death of New Jersey native and voice of altruistic do-gooderism Harry Chapin on that same stretch of highway speaks to Cuesta's intention that the L.I.E. represent an ever-flowing river of ideals flowing from an eternally idyllic past to a forever-looming future.
L.I.E. is a fantastic work, and for all the press that Solondz, Korine, et al have been receiving for their work, Cuesta's is the most satisfying in terms of literary and cinematic completeness. Young actors Dano and Kay are very simply magnificent and Brian Cox, long high among the list of my favourite pure actors, turns in one of the most memorable and wholly human characters of recent memory. He is an immediate candidate for best actor of the year (along with Steve Buscemi in Ghost World). If not for distracting and atonal Bret Easton Ellis-esque moments of Eighties satire (the trials of Howie's father and the sterility of their home), plus a too-cursory glossing of Howie and Gary's other two pals, L.I.E. would receive my highest recommendation. As it is, it's thoughtful, thought-provoking, and refreshingly free of the dim-witted pandering that is endemic to coming-of-age films. A triumphant debut, Michael Cuesta's L.I.E. is an important examination of the rot at our nation's core and the enduring promise for our nation's youth despite the short-sighted pessimism inspired by our worst personal and collective elements. If a lifetime pederast like Big John can find within himself the role of saviour and father, there might yet be time for we roughs, we twain, to walk hand in hand. Originally published: August 24, 2001.