Talk about a mindfuck: Instead of sleeping their way to the top, the characters in the new showbiz drama, The Dying Gaul, screw each other so they can get inside each other’s heads, figure out weaknesses and exploit them to their own ends. On the surface, playwright Craig Lucas’ chilly directorial debut is about what happens when you sell your soul to Hollywood. But by the end of the film, it’s something even more sinister: a fable about the perils of feeding off someone else’s grief.

Set in the mid-1990s, the movie opens with scruffy gay writer Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) being courted — in more ways than one — by Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), a hotshot producer interested in a screenplay based on the AIDS-related death of Robert’s lover. Jeffrey’s willing to pay a cool million for the tale, provided Robert changes the script’s main characters from two men to a man and a woman. “You can do anything you want, so long as you don’t call it what it is,” Jeffrey says, neatly summarizing the movie’s overriding theme. Robert agrees to the change, as well as to Jeffrey’s carnivorous, bisexual advances, even though the conflicted writer has become friends with the producer’s sensitive wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson).

The movie then delves into the seemingly prehistoric world of floppy discs and old-school Internet chat rooms, where Robert goes to masturbate his pain away with a little cybersex. In a plot development not unlike the one in last year’s similar play-turned-film Closer, Elaine poses as a stranger to glean information from Robert; from there, things get really weird. Lucas gives the movie an icy, distant feel, employing a slew of techniques that might be better-suited to an off-Broadway production: an angular Steve Reich score, theatrical lighting cues, asymmetrical compositions. He can’t find a strong way to visualize the film’s second half, in which the characters reveal everything to each other over the Internet while they lie like bastards in person.

This kind of material will infuriate audiences more accustomed to conventional heroes and villains, but fans of envelope-pushing acting will have a field day. Clarkson and Scott are their usual reliable selves, but Sarsgaard is the movie’s centerpiece, adopting outwardly gay mannerisms and speech patterns without ever coming off like some sort of queer minstrel. Lucas’ script requires him to cycle through a series of emotions few actors would even attempt: When Robert has his first orgasm with Jeffrey, he weeps uncontrollably, and then shifts into giddy laughter. Though the thriller elements of The Dying Gaul ultimately come unraveled, the endlessly inventive Sarsgaard commands your attention from the film’s innocuous beginning to its very bitter end.


At the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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