I’ll admit upfront — I’m not always a fan. I like a lot of movies that feature gay characters and storylines, like A Single Man and Brokeback Mountain, but when the film is specifically targeting a gay audience, I tend to feel excluded. Maybe I have a bias; maybe such pieces of entertainment have a recurring deficiency. Maybe a little of both.
To be fair about my unfairness, I probably judge gay films more harshly than their standard hetero brethren. I can’t help it. Perhaps it’s because I get so easily fed up with gay men in my personal life that I’m already at capacity when I walk into the theater. Or, maybe, I’m compensating for so many others who judge gay movies too lightly, giving amateurish writing, acting, and directing a pass just because it’s nice that such movies are even being made in the first place.
But there are exceptions. Last year, Andrew Haigh’s wonderful Weekend — a movie about two men whose casual encounter turns into a more emotionally wrought attraction over the course of a couple days — made my Top 10 Of 2011. And not just mine. It’s one of the first gay movies in which homosexuality is all but incidental, and it won over critics and audiences with a solid, modern love story that transcended the LGBT niche.
So I walked into Ira Sach’s new, semi-autobiographical film Keep The Lights On hoping for the best. The film has received mostly rave reviews and won a Teddy Award (curiously, its protagonist also wins a Teddy Award in the movie). Keep The Lights On has been billed as 2012’s Weekend, because it, too, chronicles a gay romance that stems from a “no strings attached” sexual encounter. It also employs a similar low-key, naturalistic style of filmmaking, like most other indie dramas these days. But far greater than its similarities to Weekend, it’s more like a gay version of Blue Valentine. (Pink Valentine? Actually, that would just be a standard-colored valentine.)
Keep The Lights On is the story of Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish documentarian in New York, who lives mostly off family money and has no interest in a career that will actually pay him. Since it begins in 1998, he can’t rely on Grindr and Manhunt to meet men, and does so the old-fashioned way — a phone sex line on which he frequently proclaims himself a “masculine top.” Through that, he meets Paul (Zachary Booth), a lawyer who works in publishing and claims to have a girlfriend. (A dubious claim, given his haircut.) The two hit it off, and casually, a relationship begins. The film follows the duo through a nine year rollercoaster romance, bringing us into the mid-2000’s — not that the time period matters. (There’s no 9/11 reference or any such thing.)
Early in their coupling, Paul breaks out a crack pipe and lets Erik in on his “little secret,” and we know exactly what road we’re heading down. It’s a long road, but a fairly straightforward one, with few deviations from standard movie-of-the-week steps of addiction, recovery, and relapse. That isn’t to say Keep The Lights On is entirely a “drug movie.” It’s more about the way people depend on unhealthy relationships than chemical substances, though the crack-smoking is the film’s one consistent running storyline.
Watching Keep The Lights On, I struggled a lot with what the movie was “about” and whether or not I was supposed to root for their love to survive it. If the film has one major flaw, it’s that we get little to no evidence that this is a relationship worth saving — not even from the beginning. Both characters are somewhat sketchy — we learn a lot about Erik, yet Lindhardt is such an unusual actor that it’s hard to pin down what he really wants from one moment to the next. We see such random snippets of his life over the years — a hookup with a beefy weirdo, a possible romance with a cute young college student, a BFF (Julianne Nichols) who wants to have a baby with him, an HIV scare, and an odd little documentary he’s making — but so few of these storylines go anywhere. Any could be cut from the movie without affecting the rest. Keep The Lights On might be making a point about all the things Erik is missing out on while he’s wasting away in his relationship, but it doesn’t quite.
The bigger deficiency is with Paul, who from the start is too self-absorbed and in denial about his drug habit to make for a stable boyfriend. We know little about his background or what led to his drug dependency; worse, it’s hard to gather what exactly he sees in Erik. Paul and Erik are an atypical match — Erik has a Danish accent, doesn’t pull in any money, and has an unconventional, quirky look, while Paul is clean-cut, straight-laced, and the more conventionally attractive of the two. While it’s refreshing to see a romance between two guys who aren’t easily categorized (as it was in Weekend), Paul basically is just a “type,” as far as we know, which is an increasing problem as the central question of the movie becomes: “Should these two stay together?” In most romantic dramas, the answer to that question is complicated. Here, it’s a resounding “no,” and yet Sachs keeps asking, anyway.Keep The Lights On does a number of things quite well, posing a lot of intriguing possibilities (even if few of them are fully explored). It’s mature and adult in its graphic depiction of sex (very little of which is intended to be actually sexy). There’s one strong section in which Paul does something incredibly sweet and, for the first and only time, endears us to his character. He follows it by doing something really shitty. That’s a raw and intense moment, and hard to watch, yet there’s an undeniable honesty to it.
But then it gets glossed over in favor of moving forward a couple more years, failing to deal with the emotional aftermath. By that point, I had no interest in seeing these two back together — or even ever speaking to each other again. It’s an autobiographical film, so I have no doubt many aspects of Erik and Paul’s rocky nine years are drawn from real life. But who wants to watch a movie about believable people behaving in a realistically wrong-headed way? Paul consistently makes bad choices with his drug use and sexual behavior, and Erik continuously makes the unwise decision to stay with him. I, for one, could only accept this for so long before I became frustrated and just wanted it to end. (Not the movie, necessarily, just their relationship. But that is the movie.)
While Keep The Lights On sounds like a hopeful title, it actually comes from a moment in which Paul wants a lamp left on at bedtime because he doesn’t trust Erik not to take his bitter revenge in the dark. It’s tossed off as a joke, and yet it made me wish the film had explored this further and pushed us deeper into this dark territory. But for all the drama, Keep The Lights On keeps us at a distance from feeling what either Erik or Paul is experiencing at any given moment — either the elation at the beginning of their relationship or the deep wounds at the end. I thought a lot about Steve McQueen’s Shame, another Manhattan-set film about addiction does, that mired us much more in the protagonist’s misery. Keep The Lights On instead skims the surface, forcing us to fill in the blanks ourselves. It doesn’t leave us hopeful about the futures of the characters the way Weekend does, nor does is it as devastating as Blue Valentine. We remain on the outside, looking in.
Is Keep The Lights On worth watching? Sure. The performances are strong, the direction assured. The script is its weakest point, with lots of loose plot threads and a somewhat sloppy approach to the passing of time. (Not a single character’s hair changes even slightly over nine years?) On a personal level, I became exasperated with the characters beyond what I believe Sachs was striving for. There’s a fair amount of truth in the messy randomness of their behavior, which works better in the dark moments but sputters out when the film goes down a too-conventional road in the final act. It seems to want us to have more affection for the love between these two than we actually do. A movie like this only really works when the central relationship is interesting enough to warrant such a telling, but even with some crack-smoking thrown in, this one is just too ordinary.
Ironically, when it comes to who these guys are and why they feel they so desperately need each other, Keep The Lights On leaves us in the dark. It’s an admirable little film, but you’re better off checking out last year’s Weekend if you haven’t already.
(Originally posted on JustinPlusSix.)