20 July 2004 | Chris Knipp
No, not the dance
Somehow one expected Jacob Tierney's Twist to be bad, but one didn't know how bad. Doesn't Nick Stahl ever get any better roles than this? (He has an important part in Terminator 3, but somehow that's not exactly acting.) He's a soulful fall guy (he's been brutally murdered on screen at least twice) but he needs to break out of the mold. Here he is again, though, playing a loser role in a loser movie.
Nick must have got cast because he has those big dark sad hustler eyes, because here we are again in a gay updated version of a literary classic, this time a honed down Dickens transposed to a modern male hustler setting, just as Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho was - but only in part, and that was the least successful part - a gay modernization of Shakespeare's Henry IV. Keanu Reeves got to mess around with River Phoenix just the way Prince Hal got to party with the low lifers of Eastcheap, and when he rejected the Falstaff surrogate the dissolute pedophile embodied by avantgarde filmmaker William Richert he was also rejecting the gay life. This Oliver Twist (Twist, Joshua Close) doesn't have much fun, or much of a relationship with anybody, nor does he get to reject the quagmire he's planted in. Instead of Portland we're in Toronto, which replaces London, and scoring tricks replaces picking pockets. Fagin is a fat arty movie person with a gay ponytail. Actually he's Gary Farmer, who was the wonderful character Nobody in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. But this time he isn't given much to work with and really is nobody. Nick Stahl is the Arful Dodger, only he's just called Dodge. He's not artful; nor is this movie.
The pace drags, no scene stands out, there are no smiles; there is no charm (how can you hustle without that?). The characters aren't realistic in that way. Van Sant used some real male hustlers in Idaho and he knew the milieu and the ploys of the boys. Everything in Twist is dirty and dingy and dark and cold and Toronto could as well be Akron or Pittsburgh: it's nowhere interesting, and there's no sense of locale or culture. A good deal of time is spent waiting in coffee shops for the weather to warm up or the coffee to get cold. Or perhaps just for the movie to end.
It seems at first when Dodge picks up the runaway Oliver and actor Close does have a very Dickensian face in one of the coffee shops and takes him back to the dormitory where the boys live, maybe some kind of teen hustler bonding will ensue. It really doesn't. TimeOut New York wrote `Who knew that a movie squalid enough to feature someone servicing his own brother [i.e., for money] could also be so tedious?' It added that though `Stahl's performance is convincingly anguished, too many scenes play like improvised acting exercises.' Yes, and what this means is that you can't tell what the scenes mean or what they're about.
To call Stahl `anguished' is generous. Sometimes, as in an unsuccessful acting exercise, he's just floundering or (pun intended) stalling, and nobody in this movie musters much of a presence: the girl waitresses and minor hustler characters give just as strong an impression as Oliver or Dodge and that ain't good.
Such emotional and/or action `climaxes' as there are Oliver bursting into tears and Dodge finally breaking down and kissing him (as Oliver has wanted him to all along), Dodge running off and shooting somebody (who? The john they call `The Senator'? Why? Because he's made Oliver cry? Is that enough of a reason?) these all seem thrown together. The squalor leads to torpor. There's no energy in the story or the acting.
Given that everything is dingy and dark in Twist, one is reminded how wonderfully bright and surreal some of the scenes in My Own Private Idaho are, how pretty Van Sant's images sometimes can be in that movie, how they sing -- and the strong contrasts between scenes; whereas here the scenes and images all devolve into each other. One also remembers the shared hustler language and humor and routines between David Arquette and Lucas Haas in the infinitely more authentic-seeming (if ignored) male hustler movie about L.A., Scott Silver's 1996 Johns.
Yet you can't say the backstory on Dodge a runaway sexually abused by his dad, now a heroin addict whom his straight, respectable older brother comes to try to bring back to Montreal yet seems unhealthily attracted to is uninteresting; but the scenes in which all this emerges are awkward and repetitive. Twist is bad -- quite bad. If you walk out of it depressed, it's not because of the material but because of its sloppy treatment. A movie as grim as Boys Don't Cry could leave one feeling elated, because it was so beautifully made and convincingly acted; because its arc was both complex and clear. Twist lies mired in its murk. But the director's only twenty-four: he'll have second chances.