The Living End Review
Now that the media frenzy and awards drama surrounding Brokeback Mountain is so three years ago, it's a lot easier for viewers to judge Ang Lee's 'gay cowboy movie' and where it sits within modern cinema. Of course, it's a very accomplished film but, in its stateliness and eagerness to be seen by as many people as possible, lacks a certain punch in comparison with earlier films that didn't strive to make the gay experience universal. Gregg Araki's The Living End is a reminder that, fifteen years before the story of doomed Ennis Del Mar was given the Best Picture nod (and, it's worth remembering, still lost to Crash), independent cinema was rife with films that unapologetically revelled in their character's fringe lifestyles. Very much a cult film, The Living End still can't shake the tag of 'a gay Thelma & Louise' but is worth revisiting as an interesting document of the time it was made, when the 'New Queer Cinema' sub-genre was beginning to shape.
Essentially a road movie centred around a destructive relationship in the best tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, it has been described by Araki as his most 'desperate' film. By God, it shows. 2005's Mysterious Skin was suffocatingly dark, sure, but it is frustration that propels The Living End and forms the spine of its punky aesthetic and overall message. This attitude is epitomised by Luke (Mike Dytri), a whiskey-swigging drifter who we first meet scrawling the slogan 'Fuck the World' on a wall. Thoughtful film critic Jon (Craig Gilmore), reeling from the life-shattering news that he is HIV positive, is introduced to 'ticking time bomb' Luke when the latter hitches a ride following his murder of three homophobes. A place to stay turns into a night of passion which, when Luke inexplicably kills a cop, evolves into a getaway escape that changes Jon's life forever.
Setting its characters against a West Coast backdrop, during a time when the devastating '80s AIDS crisis was still fresh in the memory, The Living End explores what happens when people pushed to the sidelines of society are pushed still further. Whereas Brokeback explored the repression of its characters, Araki's film examines how Jon slowly follows Luke's lead to fully embracing his 'otherness' to such an extent that this behaviour becomes dangerous to both himself and the society Luke blames. One incidental character remarks on the shift between the '70s, when homosexuality was 'fashionable', and the consequences of the following decade; it's this thread, a persecuted people struggling to regain their place within the world, that Araki follows through Jon's hesitant road trip with Luke.
As with the majority of Araki's work, it's utterly unflinching. The sex scenes are explicit ('Choke me'), which is also true of the cavalier and largely consequence-free violence. Consider the long take where Luke shows up at Jon's bedside in the dead of night, gun in his mouth and blood splattered on his cheeks, if you're in the mood for scenes that giddily play with 'gun-as-penis'/'sex-as-weapon' metaphors. Such a confrontational film isn't begging for the love of an audience and yet, for viewers to get on board with the escalating rollercoaster, the central relationship has to be believable. Despite Araki's tendency to prioritise his actors' torsos and physiques, Dytri and Gilmore are authentic enough to carry what is pretty much a two-hander. The director attempts to round out his world by frequently cutting back to Jon's friend (Darcy Marta), whose own relationship is suffering as she struggles to come to terms with Jon's news, but the film loses forward momentum during these scenes.
Head-on collisions with politics of the day surround the casual sex and random acts of violence, which is where Araki fully vents his anger in no uncertain terms with the then-administration. Luke is his mouthpiece; when he's not administering more of his confrontational slogans ('I Blame Society', 'Fags Rule OK'), he's insisting to Jon that they culminate their trip by going to Washington and injecting Bush (round one) with a syringe full of their blood. In Luke's assertion that 'they'd have a magic cure by tomorrow' lies Araki's motive for making this film, providing a distressed voice for those who suffered due to ignorance. A dedication to victims of HIV comes at the end of the credits, acknowledging a 'big White House full of Republican dickheads' and hammering the message home even further. It's not exactly subtle and, when Jon commands Luke to put his gun away or 'at least be a little discreet with it', the irony is not lost. However, it's obviously a cause that Araki was very passionate about and is the ultimate reason why this film exists.
The power play and building conflict between Luke and Jon provides a framework for Araki's political concerns to be hung upon. Luke's growing disregard for society's rules and 'violence begets violence' stance is at odds with Jon's soft-spoken passiveness, and yet Luke's irresponsible navigation through life allows Jon to find freedom in his own 'death sentence'. When Luke terms himself a victim of the sexual revolution, it's rather self-pitying and doesn't make his acts any less reprehensible, but it does make for compelling drama as we watch his aggressor tempt a bewildered Jon. The line between sex and violence becomes increasingly blurred during the third act, with Luke's gun becoming an extension of his own hand and something he depends upon to maintain his position as the alpha male. The confused relationship between the pair culminates in the film's uncomfortable climax, which is essentially a rape scene by way of a suicide attempt that ends with the violated party offering his arm to console both himself and his attacker. Co-dependency much? It's as fucked-up and difficult to watch as anything featured in Mysterious Skin but has an undeniable power, lifting the film above a level it otherwise might not have surpassed.
Were it not for this brave payoff, the film's attempts to be so very provocative up until this point would effectively be stretching patience to breaking point. Thankfully, the savage streak of dark humour that is shot through the most unlikely of scenarios is where The Living End really entertains, and provides a welcome respite from the film's political agenda. Luke's early encounter with two homicidal lesbians is particularly hysterical, and the implication that their grisly end involves a 'snake in those bushes' adds another penis metaphor to the mix - y'know, for those few who may think the film is lacking in that area.
For a film fraught with such symbolism, it's a shame there's no commentary - or any extras at all - to accompany this release. Although it sounds uninspiring on paper, the grainy 4:3 transfer actually lends the film a dated, trashy look that adds to the feel of it being a time capsule of Luke and Jon's journey. This is, after all, a story told through the windscreen, a document, one of the 'notes from oblivion' that Jon records on his dictaphone during quiet moments at the centre of the storm. The fact that much of the film's content is not relevant to today's politics and attitudes does not detract from the fact that the desperate frustration at the film's core still carries weight; Obama may be in but are civil partnerships out? Whatever's next in the gay rights saga is unclear but there's a verve present in The Living End that should be enough to court the gay audience it strives to represent and anyone else willing to come along on the ride. It's not the Oscar-flirting 'masterpiece' that Brokeback was declared; it's too messy, too militant and not at all concerned with sugar-coating or censoring its central themes. As an uncompromising study of two protagonists coming to terms with their own mortality and place in the world, it's closer in tone to Gus Van Sant's brilliant My Own Private Idaho, which is no small praise.
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