Directed By Kimberly Peirce. Written By Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen.
III Tom Nissen
I think that my fundamental problem with Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” is that… we only get a glimpse of Brandon Teena. While it’s prudent to play up the ugly sub-text surrounding Brandon Teena’s tragic fate, it seems rather odd for director Kimberly Peirce to shy away from some of the more fundamental questions surrounding Brandon Teena’s story. One wonders what Teena’s state of mind was during those fateful days she spent inhabiting the skin of a man named Brandon. One wonders if she was conscious of how much fire she was actually playing with… the possibility of a very ugly end game. Reading the case file on Teena’s case, it’s easy to ascertain that there were storm clouds lurking on the horizon, especially when it came to the people that “Brandon” had shacked up with. It makes you wonder…. was Brandon Teena simply oblivious to the fire that she was playing with or did the feeling of liberation she felt blind her somewhat? These are the questions that Kimberly Peirce’s film does not answer and that’s a shame. In my view, it makes it alot easier to process this film if we have an idea of who Brandon Teena was and what her exact state of mind was. Since thses questions remain unanswered, my reaction to “Boys Don’t Cry” is somewhat ambivalent.
I’ll admit, I know very little about writer/director Kimberly Peirce. As of this writing, I have not seen her follow up film…. “Stop Loss.” Still, after watching “Boys Don’t Cry” I get the sense that she sees the world in an extreme shade of black and white. Give you an example of what I’m talking about. There is a scene towards the end of “Boys Don’t Cry,” when Brandon’s true sexual identity is discovered and all hell breaks loose. This is the moment when Brandon is assaulted by the people he thought were her friends, the moment where he tries to report the assault to the local sheriff. It seems like Peirce is fascinated by the idea of an old school lawman with narrow minded and or indifferent sensibilities. She seems to hold the sheriff up to the light like someone looking through a wondrous social prism of sorts. The sheriff character is no treat, but is it really a surprise that Brandon would encounter such a rigid and indifferent person smack dab in the middle of the heartland? For Peirce to put the sheriff in a box labeled “heel” is valid but on the whole… she’s missing the bigger picture. I mean, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the sheriff’s indifference towards Brandon is born and bred in the very place where he took his first steps. If this obvious to the audience, it should be obvious to writer/director Kimberly Peirce.
Plot: Teena Brandon (Hilary Swank) is a sexually ambivalent woman who feels that her rightful gender is that of a male. This is when Teena Brandon decides to live her life as Brandon Teena. After running from various scrapes related to the true nature of her gender and a bevy of criminal charges, Brandon settles down in the corn belt for a spell. This is where Brandon comes to the aide of a damsel named Candace (Alicia Goranson.)
Brandon’s act of chivalry leads him to two of Candace’s pals, John Lotter (Peter Saarsgard) and Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III.) Eventually, Brandon’s association with Lotter and Nissen leads him to Candace’s sister, Lana (Chloe Sevigny.) Lana really doesn’t take to Brandon’s charms but eventually… the two fall in love. Of course, this causes a rather dicey complication for Brandon concerning his true sexual identity. A complication that manifests itself to the point that Brandon’s relationship with Lotter and Nissen turns extremely volatile. It is at this point that Brandon finds himself running for his life, his two former friends vowing vengeance for the perceived “ruse” that was perpetrated on them, as well as Candace and Lana. I’ll stop there, you can decipher the rest of the plot on your own.
I’ve taken writer/director Kimberly Peirce to task quite a bit, but don’t get the wrong idea…. she doesn’t a whole lot of things right here. I’d be remiss if if didn’t give Peirce credit for the way she handles the relationship between Brandon (Swank) and Lana (Sevigny.) I like how Lana’s confusion sort of lingers beneath the surface. The neat thing is, Peirce lets Sevigny’s performance tell us all about Lana and what exactly she feels for Brandon. It’s nice to see a director who doesn’t feel the need to grandstand. Most first times directors would tend to treat Lana’s state of ambivalence with ham handed symbolism. Though I had issues with the black and white prism in which the sheriff character s viewed, director Kimberly Peirce is still savvy enough to step back and let her camera and her dialogue guide us along.
Performances: If praise is going to be dished out, it undoubtedly starts with Hilary Swank herself. Swank’s performance is a complete metamorphosis, an inside/outside turn of one’s skin. In my view, the key to Swank’s performance is the fact that she inhabits Brandon’s skin the whole way through. Most first time directors would make the fatal mistake of taking a moment to pull down the mask and let us know that what we’re seeing is the illusion of a gifted actor or actress. There’s something so very genuine about Hilary Swank’s performance, it never feels like she’s simply “putting on.” I give Hilary Swank all the credit in the world for taking this role; inhabiting the skin of an opposite gender is a tricky proposition. To make this whole metamorphosis flawlessly believable requires a certain level of skill. I don’t know if Hilary Swank will ever have a “knock it out of the park” role like the one she had in “Boys Don’t Cry” but no one should ever question her abilities as an actress ever again.
Kudos to Chloe Sevigny as well for a very nuanced performance that manages to go beyond the old “am I or aren’t I” cliche. Let’s face it, Sevigny’s role becomes a bit more complex when Lana and Brandon enter the stage of intimacy. Lana’s state of mind after this event is unspoken in a way… Sevigny is asked to let her performance guide as to what she’s feeling and what state of mind she’s in. This isn’t an easy thing to ask of an actress but Sevigny more than holds her own.
Final Thoughts: Perhaps I shouldn’t have read the case file regarding Teena Brandon before I saw “Boys Don’t Cry” during the end of its cinematic run in 1999. If you haven’t seen this film yet, I would advise you to go into it cold. If you know how her story ultimately unfolded, you’re more likely to ask questions that this film simply doesn’t answer. Speaking for myself… I have many questions running through my mind.