on September 07, 2001 by Michael Tunison
   A disturbing coming-of-age story set in the soul-killing nowhere of American suburbia, director Michael Cuesta's feature debut "L.I.E." refuses to tie its ideas about human nature into a neat little bundle for the convenience of viewers. But while this dark, gay-themed drama certainly isn't for everyone, its complex portrayal of taboo relationships is sure to provoke a reaction from those willing to take the journey.

   The title refers to the busy Long Island Expressway, which 15-year-old protagonist Howie Blitzer (convincing newcomer Paul Franklin Dano) has come to view as a metaphor for life's dangers ever since his mother died in a car accident on it. Alienated from his insensitive businessman father (Bruce Altman), Howie gets involved in a series of minor burglaries with a gang of troubled boys led by Gary (Billy Kay), a seductive troublemaker from the wrong side of the tracks. Then the theft of a pair of collector's pistols puts Howie on a collision course with Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox), an aging ex-Marine infamous for his liaisons with young men in the area.

   Cuesta (who co-wrote the script with Stephen M. Ryder and Gerald Cuesta) initially seems to be setting up Big John as the predatory villain of the piece, but the relationship that develops between Howie and the older man turns out to be a far less predictable one. Played with subtle power by the always-commanding Cox (the original screen Hannibal Lecter from "Manhunter"), Big John emerges as a complex, human figure the film neither judges nor excuses for his actions. Other elements of the story are less successful, particularly a clunky subplot involving the criminal investigation of Howie's father for his financial practices, but "L.I.E.'s" best moments represent the kind of bold artistic vision too frequently lacking in today's independent cinema. Starring Brian Cox, Paul Franklin Dano, Billy Kay and Bruce Altman. Directed by Michael Cuesta. Written by Stephen M. Ryder, Michael Cuesta and Gerald Cuesta. Produced by René Bastian, Linda Moran and Michael Cuesta. A Lot 47 release. Drama. Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content. Running time: 97 min

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