Monday, 9 July 2012

Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Dir. Kimberley Peirce
Starring: Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III 

Hilary Swank only earned $75 a day for her work on Boys Don’t Cry; a total of $3,000. She did win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her pains however. This took her from someone whose previous biggest flirtation with Hollywood had been five years earlier in The Next Karate Kid to someone who could hold her own alongside the likes of Al Pacino in Insomnia and Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby (for which she won the Best Actress Oscar for the second time). 

One can see Boys Don’t Cry as a major reversal of fortune for Ms Swank. And it was a bold choice. The film was a relatively low budget movie with no particularly ‘name’ actors in it. And she was attached to star as Brandon Teena, a real life transgender character who was physically and genetically female but mentally and emotionally male 

We meet Brandon as he changes his appearance and commences living as a man – dressing as a man, acting like a man, and chasing after girls like a man. One wild night out leads to him waking up 70 miles away in Falls City. Here no one knows him. Here he is treated as just one of the guys and is welcomed into a circle surrounding the exuberant John (Peter Sarsgaard). Together they get blitzed, go ‘bumper skiing’, and drive around the darkened roads of night-time Nebraska 

One of the group in particular takes Brandon’s eye: Lana (Chloë Sevigny). They commence a relationship. When he is imprisoned for not appearing at a court hearing she turns up to see him. She is understandably confused as to why he is being held in a women’s cell. Brandon tells a lie, saying that he has both sets of genitalia. Her reponse, stating that she doesn’t care whether he is part monkey or ape, is a breakthrough sign of acceptance. Her friends are not so accepting. When they start to suspect that there is more (or, technically, less) to Brandon than meets the eye they explode. John and his pyromaniac best friend Tom (Brendan Sexton III) abduct, beat and rape him. When he reports the attack to the police they murder him. 

So as one might gather, it is not a laugh riot of a film. However Brandon comes across as a very sympathetic character – despite his lengthy criminal record, his impulsive nature, and his constant lies. But then, why wouldn’t he lie? He has a condition that is hard to explain or understand for those who haven’t experienced the same thing. And if this is true for Manchester in 2012, how much truer must it have been for small-town Nebraska in 1993. I can easily see that being open and honest to a potential love interest from day one would – unless that person were very receptive and trusting – be a sure-fire way to ensure that potential never develops. All the same, it is distressing to see how Lana was misled. However, one could argue that Brandon was misleading himself. It was never likely that he could develop close relationships built on a lie, and he was fooling himself thinking otherwise. Likewise he runs from his court case, when it was inevitable that the consequences of his actions would catch up with him eventually. 

Lana and Brandon play the field...

Despite this, he was entitled to be treated with a modicum of human dignity. Only a bare handful of people treat him like a person – Lana, latterly Candace (Alicia Goranson), though only after she has blown the gaff in the first place, and a nurse. The way John and Tom turn on him is savage and incomprehensible to me. Their rape of Brandon has nothing to do with sexual desire. It is a horrific expression of dominance, putting Brandon in his place – that of a woman. Even more chilling is their mock solicitousness to him afterwards, asking him if he is alright, suggesting that they keep it amongst themselves. Almost as if the rape was just one of those regrettable incidents they had to go through, but hey let’s still be mates, eh? And the police are just as bad. When Brandon reports the rape we see him sitting battered in a chair, paunchy bearded male policemen surrounding him and leaning over him, asking intrusive questions, as though he were the one on trial. And then they phone John, asking him and Tom to report to the police station the next morning. Which gives them the opportunity to get rid of the only witness: Brandon. 

Kudos to Kimberley Peirce for bringing the story (which she co-wrote) to the screen. It was a real labour of love for her, and I think the tale is told well (though there were complaints from those involved in the real life of Brandon). The films does not shy away from showing the bad aspects of Brandon, or indeed the good aspects of John and Co. The way the film is framed as well is very interesting. The time elapse shots of Nebraska at night will stay long in my memory. 

What have I learnt about Nebraska?
Do not take away the idea that Nebraskans are homophobic and intolerant. That is not a position supported by the movie. Brandon’s cousin in Lincoln (in Nebraska) says that they lynch gays in Falls City (in Nebraska). From that what we should take is that Lincoln is more tolerant than some places in Nebraska – or that Falls City is less tolerant than some places in Nebraska. Certainly their police force need some serious counselling on how to deal with rapes.

Nebraska seems flat. In both senses of the word. There isn’t much of a skyline out here, just roads and plains stretching straight on to the horizon (unless there is a silo or a pylon to interrupt them). Entertainment is very limited; even in Lincoln a trip to the roller rink is a big night out. Elsewhere kids have nothing much to do other than drinking (in bars or just sat around at home), smoking (fags, spliffs or bongs), huffing solvents or starting fires, and playing pool or ‘bumper skiing’. Careers don’t seem to come much better than weighing spinach on the night shift. 

Can we go there?
Brandon Teena moved from Lincoln to Falls City on a whim. Falls City was where he died. And I’m not sure the film makes a great case for going there, even on a whim. However, the film was not shot there; it wasn’t even shot in Nebraska. Filming took place in Texas (and now the use of the song The Bluest Eyes in Texas as the theme starts to make sense). The ‘Falls City’ seen on screen is really Greenville, Texas, about 45 miles north-east of Dallas.  

The clues are there. When Brandon goes to, as he thinks, pay the fine for speeding, he is seen walking up the steps to a building clearly labelled ‘Hunt County’. Greenville is in Hunt County, Texas; Falls City is in Richardson County, Nebraska. The scenes shot would certainly make one think it was filmed in a much more remote location however. It has a bleak emptiness to it. The McKinney Grain Company and its grain elevator was featured (it was where Lana worked weighing spinach). Brandon pulls his first girl at the Broadway Skatepark in Mesquite.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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