"Boys Don't Cry"

The fictionalized account of the Brandon Teena story is sensationalistic storytelling at its best.

Published October 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Like the threat of heat lightning on a sultry summer
evening, a vapor of menace hovers over Kimberly Peirce's
"Boys Don't Cry" almost from the first frame. The movie, an
account of a real-life multiple murder, unfolds in such a
leisurely way that it seems like one long premonition:
Something very bad is going to happen to a character we're
rapidly growing to care about, and our increasing feelings
of helplessness sweep the story forward, toward inevitable
tragedy. "Boys Don't Cry" is gripping, and it's moving, but
it isn't particularly subtle. There's a strong thread of
tabloid drama running through its core -- but at least it's
sensationalistic storytelling with a heart.

That may be the only honest approach, since Peirce is
dealing with such sensationalistic material: "Boys Don't
Cry" tells the true story of Brandon Teena (played by
Hilary Swank), who was raped and murdered in a small
Nebraska town in 1993. Brandon's secret was that he was, biologically, a woman
-- an assigned role that had never felt right to him. Thus
Teena Brandon became Brandon Teena, dressing like a man,
cultivating male mannerisms and pursuing the attentions of
women. In other words, he lived his life as the man he
wanted to be.

The charismatic Brandon was hugely successful
with women -- they seemed to have little trouble buying his
identity as a man -- but he repeatedly found himself in
scrapes with the law, tangled up in crimes that included
forgery and auto theft. His murderers, ex-cons John Lotter
and Thomas Nissen (played by Peter Sarsgaard and
Brendan Sexton III), were two locals from Falls City, the
Nebraska town he'd drifted into. According to Peirce's
telling of the story, they had become friends with Brandon,
and there was the additional complication that one of them
had long been obsessed with a young woman Brandon had fallen
in love with (Lana Tisdel, played by Chlok Sevigny). When
Lotter and Nissen discovered Brandon's "real" sexual
identity, they brutally raped him. When Brandon went to the
authorities (who, apparently, were not particularly
sympathetic), Lotter and Nissen tracked him down and killed
him, along with several of his friends, in order to silence

Peirce, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Andy Bienen,
covers an extraordinary amount of territory, not just in
terms of dealing with Brandon's sexual-identity and
self-fulfillment issues, but also in trying to understand
the lives of those around him. She's never condescending in
her view of small-town life -- she doesn't go out of her way
to make it look depressing and dismal, and with the reality
of Falls City, she doesn't have to -- but she's also
clear-eyed about the fallacy that small towns are
necessarily sweet, safe little places somehow
less threatening than cities. Her vision of Brandon's
Nebraska (the movie was shot in and around Dallas, as
Peirce discovered that Brandon Teena's murder was still too
hot an issue in Falls City) takes the measure of roadhouses
where pals congregate at night, of highways that seem to
stretch into nowhere, of dingy
homes rendered bleakly cheerful by framed prints.

Occasionally, when one of the characters is confessing a
long-cherished dream, or making a hopeful assertion that the
world really is a beautiful place, Peirce cuts to an eerily
lit dream landscape that's almost David Lynch-like in its
beauty, dotted with simple elements like water towers, naked
trees and low ceilings of clouds. It's as if she and
cinematographer Jim Denault (who also shot the starkly
evocative 1996 "illtown") want to assert that there can be beauty
in bleakness, and vice versa. The landscape around Brandon
-- changeable at any given minute but mostly stuck somewhere
between stark ugliness and naked splendor -- acts as a kind
of mirror for the dueling elements of his own identity. The
movie's surface is charged with tension; Hilary Swank's
Brandon, with his gently curved cheekbones and smooth skin,
is all about tension lurking just beneath the surface.

There are times when Peirce's instincts as a storyteller
fail her: The rape scene is so brutally realistic that it
verges on being voyeuristic, and I don't think Peirce would
have sacrificed any of its power by relying more on
suggestion than on savage details. But wherever Peirce
falters, her ensemble of actors effortlessly picks up the
slack. Brendan Sexton (as Nissen) and particularly Peter
Sarsgaard (as Lotter) pull off the difficult feat of making
you feel some measure of sympathy for two men who are
essentially cold-blooded killers. You're never ready to
excuse their behavior, but it's impossible not to see them
as flesh-and-blood characters instead of symbols. Their
brutality toward Brandon, once they discover his secret, is
obviously a product of confusion. He was someone they liked
and trusted. With their obviously limited understanding of
women (Lotter makes direct references to the stupidity of
his estranged girlfriend, the mother of his young child),
they just aren't equipped to handle Brandon's double
betrayal. Not only had he duped them about such an integral
component of his identity, he was also an official member of
the gender they not-so-secretly despised.

As Brandon, Hilary Swank gives a performance that's a
continual revelation. With his cropped, farmer-boy haircut
and a padded tube sock stuffed down his jeans, Swank's
Brandon passes for a man easily enough. In preparation for
the role, Swank spent time in public dressed as a man, and
whether her choices are intuitive or intentional, they work
as a marvelous subterfuge for a character who's striving
(against the cruelty of nature, unfortunately) for
acceptance. Brandon's swagger seems to spring straight from
his joints. His full lips are always just a little cracked
and chapped (few women willingly allow this to happen). You
don't actually ever forget that you're watching a woman --
but that's exactly the point. Brandon conveys his
uncertainty and vulnerability in small, subtle ways, in the
way he avoids a direct glance, or smiles too broadly and
eagerly when he's trying to make friends. Conventionally
speaking, those are "womanly" screens often used to hide
insecurity; it's heartrending to see Brandon succeed so
completely in filling the role of a man -- only to give
himself away to us in these tiny, barely perceptible ways.

It's love at first sight when Brandon sees Chloë Sevigny's
Lana, and that goes for us, too. Sevigny seems to end up
being the heart of just about every movie she appears in
(from the abominable "Kids" to the soggy
"The Last Days of Disco"
), and "Boys Don't Cry" is no exception. With her
sleepy lizard eyes and her slow, secret smile, she at first
seems a little inscrutable as Lana, a 19-year-old who
sleep-works through the night shift in a spinach-packing
factory, but who pours every essence of her being into her
karaoke singing. Sevigny is the kind of actress who
never gives it all away at once. We see her slowly
becoming more and more comfortable with Brandon, and
simultaneously, we warm up to her too. When the two of them
find themselves in her darkened backyard, playing around
with a Polaroid camera, we get the first clue that she
really, really likes him. She swings away from him, glancing
back slyly, her beguiling smile an unspoken invitation.

As an actress, Sevigny's transformative power translates not
just to people (we really start loving Brandon when
she does) but also to things. Her Lana is a tough,
townie girl in beat-up leather, but when she oohs and ahhs
over a selection of cheap silver rings at a
convenience-store checkout, you don't feel pity for the poor
soul because that's all she can afford. You think, "Yes, one
of those would look pretty on her." You want every
good thing for her character, which makes it all the more
wrenching to know that there's trouble ahead. When Brandon
dies, "Boys Don't Cry" reaches an emotional intensity that's
almost operatic. The saddest thing, though, is seeing
Sevigny's Lana crumpled over his corpse -- the way she plays
it, you know that when Brandon went, he took a part of her
with him, too.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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