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best remembered for his understated performance as dr . hannibal lecter in michael mann's forensics thriller , manhunter , scottish character actor brian cox brings something special to every movie he works on .
usually playing a bit role in some studio schlock ( he dies halfway through the long kiss goodnight ) , he's only occasionally given something meaty and substantial to do .
if you want to see some brilliant acting , check out his work as a dogged police inspector opposite frances mcdormand in ken loach's hidden agenda .
cox plays the role of big john harrigan in the disturbing new indie flick l . i . e . , which lot 47 picked up at sundance when other distributors were scared to budge .
big john feels the love that dares not speak its name , but he expresses it through seeking out adolescents and bringing them back to his pad .
what bothered some audience members was the presentation of big john in an oddly empathetic light .
he's an even-tempered , funny , robust old man who actually listens to the kids' problems ( as opposed to their parents and friends , both caught up in the high-wire act of their own confused lives . )
he'll have sex-for-pay with them only after an elaborate courtship , charming them with temptations from the grown-up world .
l . i . e . stands for long island expressway , which slices through the strip malls and middle-class homes of suburbia .
filmmaker michael cuesta uses it as a ( pretty transparent ) metaphor of dangerous escape for his 15-year old protagonist , howie ( paul franklin dano ) .
in his opening voice-over , howie reveals a morbid preoccupation with death on the road , citing the l . i . e .
highway deaths of filmmaker alan j . pakula , songwriter harry chapin , and his own mother on exit 52 .
he's both fascinated and disturbed by the l . i . e . , and those feelings are projected onto big john ( who follows howie around in his bright red car , but never makes a move to force the boy to do something he doesn't want to do .
this makes him much more complex than the usual child molesters seen in movies -- he's a beast , but ashamed of it . )
l . i . e . would have worked best as a half-hour short film about howie's ill-advised foray into big john's haven .
there is unnecessary padding with howie's miserable dad ( bruce altman ) in the hot seat for a white-collar crime , degenerate youngsters who get their kicks from robbing middle-class houses , and some homoerotic shenanigans with wise-ass gary terrio ( billy kay ) , a handsome artful dodger .
rather than add to the themes of suburban ennui ( not that we needed another movie on that subject ) , these awkward subplots pad out the running time to adequate feature length .
concurrently , the relationship between howie and big john is evenly paced and exceptionally well acted .
cox , sporting a baseball cap and a faded marine tattoo , is all bluff and bluster .
dano is quiet and at first glance seems so withdrawn as to be transparent .
we're so used to child actors whose dramatic choices are broad and obvious ( calling haley joel ! ) , it's surprising to see one who actually listens throughout any given scene .
the restraint is admirable .
but l . i . e . 's screenplay doesn't always give them the best material .
when howie reads big john a walt whitman poem , the moment feels a bit too precious .
director michael cuesta lingers on an ecstatic reaction shot of big john , who may as well be hearing glenn gould performing bach's goldberg variations .
it's too much .
there are also some obvious dramatic contrivances involving big john's other boy toy ( walter masterson ) , jealous over the newbie .
this plot thread predictably leads to violence .
not content to be a haunting , observational portrait of teen alienation in a royally screwed up world ( like terry zwigoff's superb ghost world ) , cuesta lacks the confidence in his own work to end on an ambivalent note .
it's typical of unimaginative cinema to wrap things up with a bullet , sparing the writers from actually having to come up with a complex , philosophical note .
in this regard , l . i . e .
( and countless other indie films ) share something in common with blockbuster action films : problems are solved when the obstacle is removed .
how often does real life work this way ?
to extend the question : if a movie is striving for realism , do dramatic contrivances destroy the illusion ?
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