No wonder 15-year-old Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) gazes thoughtfully at traffic whizzing east and west on the Long Island Expressway. He hardly knows which way his life is heading since his mom died in a crash on the very same road. His dad already has a new young girlfriend, while he himself is drifting into petty crime as he puzzles over his tingling attraction for a fellow tearaway. A further complication is Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox), a Vietnam vet intent on retrieving the pistols the two lads had swiped from his basement, but whose hearty exterior masks predatory urges towards teenage boys. Howie is soon alert to the pederast’s dark motives, but Big John also serves as kindly uncle and wise mentor when the forlorn youth most needs it. The connection between the two may not be one-way traffic after all.
The prime achievement of Michael Cuesta’s sober, unexploitative debut film is to suspend judgement on these individuals while never lapsing into flip ‘aren’t we being shocking!’ self-consciousness. As Cox’s extraordinarily rewarding performance elucidates, Big John’s shame at his covert behaviour doesn’t curtail this pillar-of-the-community’s illicit double-life; nor does it preclude tender protectiveness towards this sensitive young man in the making. Here too Paul Franklin Dano’s instinctive contribution allows us to read Howie’s vulnerability, self-possession and adolescent yearning. Their scenes together are insightful and uncomfortable, challenging in their revelations without ever condoning Big John’s activities. The ending is dismayingly over-neat for a film that’s notable for such enquiring ambiguity, but it’s Cox’s ominous complexity you’ll remember.
U.S.A., 2001. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 97 mins.

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