Hollywood is a complex place, modern Hollywood extremely so. People lie, cheat, steal, wear masks, spy, do whatever they can to achieve their goals. When Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) drops his screenplay into the lap of Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), he receives a response only drunkenly fantasized about by most screenwriters. Of course, there is a catch, one that causes him to stick to and then later drop his guns. Scott is an actor uniquely suited to the sort of oily likability of a Hollywood producer. He is warm and intelligent but verbally sharper than a papercut. He can lie to your face, you know he’s lying, and you still believe him. How could anyone not be seduced by his plastic warmth, his soft-spoken wish fulfillment?
Then there is the other sort of seduction, the kind that at first tromps on your boundaries and repels you, and then in spite of itself, works. Scott is good at that too. Jeffrey is married to Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a former screenwriter, total bombshell, and kind, genuine person despite the company she keeps. She is his yang to Jeffrey’s yin, and the lynchpin of the plot that unfolds. Entering their castle is Robert. Sarsgaard has a serpentine, closed face that still draws you in. He can play wicked, he can play angelic. He can lie or be gut-wrenchingly honest, and you can’t always be sure you’re right about him. Scott and Sarsgaard are like a modern day Tracy and Hepburn – so perfectly well-matched that they can’t help but fill each other’s voids or represent what the other person so desperately wants to internalize. Or to consume. Verbally well-matched, morally ambiguously fascinating together, they are exciting to watch. All three leads give extraordinary performances.
There are scenes in the Dying Gaul that are brazenly sexual, but emotionally vacant. There are scenes which are so intimate that you feel like an intruder. In one scene between the lead men in particular I was distracted by thinking how difficult and intense a performance I was watching must have been. Other scenes are (believe it or not) online chatting that feels as invasive as a rape scene. The Dying Gaul overturns all preconceived expectations. It makes a paradise of a Hollywood mansion seem first like an unassailable fortress and then a narrow, dingy prison. It takes a writer’s garrett and drops a classical art reference into it like a rotunda. Who is evil? Where are these people’s hearts? Is Sarsgaard evil for betraying his protagonist? Is Clarkson evil for her angelic, evisceral form of love? Is Scott evil for his layers of betrayal? And to top it off, we get an ambiguous ending and still total closure. Narratively, dramatically, it is a delight; but the Dying Gaul (named for a screenplay within the movie that is named for a statue) is a complex, dark tale best digested with a friend. Unlike another recent film and masochist’s ball, Closer, The Dying Gaul’s characters are not begging the audience to love them despite their cruelties and flaws, and that makes this film all the more watchable in comparison.
MPAA Rating R-sexual content, language
Release date 11/4/05
Time in minutes 105
Director Craig Lucas
Studio Strand Releasing