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The Dying Gaul

Great Premise, Great Promise, But Undermined by a Muddled Middle

The Dying Gaul is a gay-themed, neo-noirish thriller set in Hollywood by playwright-turned-screenwriter/director Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Longtime Companion). Unlike Robert Altman's The Player, with its emphasis on an egocentric, amoral protagonist, self-referential jokes, and darkly irreverent satire, The Dying Gaul adopts a more somber, almost hermetic approach, focusing on the conflicting desires, deceits, and betrayals that arise when a business relationship turns personal (and sexual). Like Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, The Dying Gaul, centers on a struggling screenwriter, Robert, and the semi-exploitative, tangled relationships he develops with a self-interested, predatory Hollywood producer and the producer's wife.

Los Angeles, California, 1995. Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) arrives at an unnamed Hollywood studio to pitch a screenplay, a semi-autographical love story based on Robert and his dead lover, Malcolm (Bill Camp). After practically seducing Robert, Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) offers Robert a Faustian bargain: rewrite the screenplay, changing the central characters from gay to straight and Robert will be paid a cool one million dollars for the screenplay. For Robert, his integrity as a writer is at stake, as well as an implicit promise to Malcolm to make authentic art from his suffering. Robert, near destitute agrees to Jeffrey's proposal, but only if he can do the rewrites.

Elaine, Jeffrey's wife, mother of two, and an unsuccessful screenwriter, busies herself raising her two children (with the help of a maid and nanny, of course), playing hostess for Jeffrey's dinner parties and participating in charitable events and gift giving. Robert becomes ensconced in Jeffrey and Elaine's upper-class lives. Jeffrey sees Robert as a potential lover. Elaine sees Robert as a potential friend and confidante. Elaine's attraction to and interest in Robert leads her to participating in gay chat rooms under an assumed identity, hoping to learn more about the taciturn, reserved Robert's backstory.

Elaine's online deception lead to a series of reversals, betrayals, and revelations, and an ambiguous ending that leaves several key events offscreen and motivations unexplored. We do, however, leave The Dying Gaul with the knowledge that the characters, whatever their faults or misdeeds, are punished in ways far outstripping their moral "crimes". The lack of what can be called moral equivalence makes The Dying Gaul difficult viewing, but if Lucas wants to remind his audience of the law of unintended consequences, then he succeeds brilliantly. It also makes The Dying Gaul a contemporary morality play and classically oriented tragedy.

With Peter Sarsgaard, Campbell Scott, and Patricia Clarkson in the lead roles, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they all give committed, nuanced performances, with each actor given the opportunity to show a wide range of emotion, without a false note between them. For a first time director, Craig Lucas displays a firm grasp of the technical essentials for visualizing a film. He and his cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, even indulge in expressive lighting (Robert's West Hollywood apartment is often lit only by his computer screen and the red neon sign that sits outside his window. Lucas even shows a deft hand in cleverly transitioning between scenes to subtly suggest connections between them.

Where The Dying Gaul falters, however, is in Lucas' decision to advance the Robert-Elaine storyline via the online chat room device, with Robert unknowingly sharing personal information that may have negative, possibly disastrous, repercussions in the real world. Attempting to make online dialogue dramatically engaging is one challenge that The Dying Gaul fails to overcome. Lucas cuts between close-ups of computer screens and the characters narrating their side of the dialogue.

Later, when one character's duplicity and game playing rises to the metaphysical, Lucas has that character's voice mixed or doubled with the voice of the character he or she is presumably impersonating. This plot device also depends almost completely on Robert's gullibility, something hard to believe in our cynical, jaded Internet age, which partly explains why Lucas set The Dying Gaul in the mid-1990s (Jeffrey, and by extension, the studio's homophobia also makes more sense ten years ago than it would in a presumably more open-minded 2005).

The "Dying Gaul" of the film's title is an ancient statue that currently resides in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. A Roman copy of a Greek original, the "Dying Gaul" depicts a barbarian warrior moments before his death. The statue is generally interpreted to have a double meaning: a display of the warrior's bravery and honor, and for the victors who, by defeating him, have proved their worthiness and superiority to their fallen enemy. For Robert, it has a special meaning, as an early photograph of Robert standing or squatting next to the statue in Rome indicates. It also serves as the admittedly oblique title for Robert's screenplay. In the final scene, the "Dying Gaul" comes to have a vastly different meaning as one character unconsciously mirrors the statue's expression of loss, grief, and despair. It's the kind of emotional and thematic resonance that The Dying Gaul struggles to attain, but achieves only intermittently.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars