I often wonder if director Kimberley Pierce knew, as she was
making Boys Don't Cry, that Hilary Swank was
giving one of the greatest performances by a female actor of all
As she handled the making of the film there must have been a
great weight on her mind. This was particularly difficult subject
matter. There had to be something to draw us in to see this movie,
something that makes us want to experience this even though the
story is well known and we know that in the end this brutal murder
That thing that sucks us in and deserves to be seen is the humanity
of Brandon himself, and the beautifully rendered love story between
Brandon and his girlfriend Lana.
It is interesting that no one, not even Brandon Teena himself,
could define Brandon's sexuality in terms that fit into the pigeon
holes most of us are comfortable with. In fact, there is nothing
in this film meant to make us feel comfortable; not Brandon, not
this hideous Nebraska small town, not the sex, not the violence,
not the aftermath. We are dragged relentlessly through a series
of scenes and situations meant to stir us up. It compels us to
think about the social pathology of not only Brandon, but all
the characters surrounding him.
Brandon Teena didn't see himself as a transsexual or a lesbian.
He just wanted to be a regular guy with a regular girlfriend.
He stuffed a sock down his jeans, cut his hair short, went to
a town where no one knew him and tried his luck with the local
girls. In reality (as outlined in the documentary The
Brandon Teena Story) he dated several girls, all of whom
thought he was romantic and sweet. In Boys Don't Cry
those girls are all melded into a single character, Lana (Chloe
Brandon courts Lana. There's no other way to describe it. This
girl who is used to the violence and neglect of previous boyfriends
is suddenly faced with a guy who brings her flowers and wants
to hear her ideas. We watch Lana literally thaw out before our
eyes, beginning to feel like a valued human being and not just
a well-worn possession. It isn't difficult to understand why Lana
falls for Brandon. What is difficult to understand is what she's
thinking when certain facts must have become obvious. Was it all
an illusion she just couldn't bear to shatter?
Chloe Sevigny, a truly interesting beauty, plays Lana with the
perfect mixture of world weariness and frightened hope. Lana is
so deeply in denial about Brandon that when the revelation comes
she acts as shocked as everybody else, but we can never be sure
at what point Lana suspected or knew the truth.
It doesn't really matter. Brandon and Lana are in love, and we
believe that they are in love. The gregarious-but-vicious John
at first likes Brandon, but begins to hate him in the way any
thug resents someone who takes something he sees as rightfully
his. The humiliation of being supplanted in Lana's life is enough.
Having Lana be with (in his eyes) a cross-dressing freak snaps
his already frail and violent mindset. Sarsgaard is wonderful
in the role, giving evil in the American heartland a believeable
face. John is always on the edge, always just one push away from
snapping. Once we realise this and realise what danger Brandon
has gotten himself into, the rape and murder seem almost inevitable.
As repulsed as I was by the rape scene and later by the murder,
the truly heinous scenes are when Brandon reports the initial
rape to the police and is practically ridiculed and tormented.
The scenes with the police were written faithfully to the transcripts
of Brandon's police interviews, and they're so shocking it is
difficult to accept that in this dramatised tale, these are the
scenes that are the most accurate. They needed to be accurate
or else the film would lose all credibility. In this case, reporting
the rape was a violation as bad, if not worse than the rape itself.
The words of the police are as violent as punches to the head.
There are many things as viewers that we can choose to take away
with us from this film. Anger is the first thing that comes to
mind, that same anger many of us felt after hearing about Matthew
Shepard's murder or countless others closer to home. I felt
confused that something like this could ever happen. I felt happy
in a way, that Brandon found some element of peace with himself
before his life was brutally snatched away.
The challenge for the director here was to let Brandon's story
be horrible and sweet and inspiring without sinking into sentimentality.
The superb acting certainly helps with that, but the script too
never tries to over-emphasise the lessons we are all meant to
be learning from Brandon's death. I don't know if I'd call this
film entertainment, but it is unflinching, uncompromising, and
after the tragedy of the story enters your soul I don't think
it ever truly goes away. A complicated film for complicated times.
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