"Most Americans hate gay people" according to Jeffrey, a Hollywood suit played by Campbell Scott (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). As Craig Lucas's filmmaking debut The Dying Gaul opens, the unctuous Jeffrey is doing his best to convince an unsuccessful screenwriter named Robert (Peter Sarsgaard, Jarhead) to straighten up his characters in order to get $1 million for his seemingly autobiographical script; i.e., turn a same-sex couple into a heterosexual couple. Does Robert surrender his vision for that jawdropping sum, which Jeffrey couches as a chance for artistic freedom? Wouldn't you?
"The Dying Gaul" is also the title of Robert's labor-of-love screenplay, which was inspired by a statue he and his recently deceased boyfriend saw on a trip to Europe. So the script's 1,172 occurrences of "Maurice" are changed to "Maggie" (this causes the computer to crash --- a satisfying touch) and Robert begins his soul-selling journey, an excursion he doesn't embark on alone.
Jeffrey starts coming on to Robert almost immediately --- "What a doll you are!" --- and the two of them engage in an affair. But the bisexual Jeffrey has a family, which includes two kids and wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson, Good Night, and Good Luck), a former screenwriter who now spends her days padding around their boxy, sterile palace and doing laps in one of those ritzy pools that seem to melt into the horizon. And Elaine and Robert become as thick as thieves, though once Elaine wises up to Jeffrey's betrayal, she begins to toy with the already fragile Robert in an ingenious manner.
Elaine learns that Robert is a devotee of gay chat rooms, so she invents an identity and starts cruising for information about him online. What is initially an innocent pastime becomes increasingly diabolical after Robert admits to his anonymous confidante that he's doing his boss. Elaine's legwork allows her to pretend to be Robert's late lover communicating from the grave, a notion that the struggling Robert is all too ready to believe. Much of Gaul consists of voiceovers and typing, not one's usual idea of filmed entertainment but fascinating in the capable hands of Sarsgaard and Clarkson.
Gaul is basically a cleverly written --- if not entirely believable --- thriller featuring three of the most quietly electrifying actors around alternately commanding our sympathies and repulsing us with their inexcusable conduct. Scott has the least showy part as Jeffrey, but it's that restraint that makes him the most enigmatic. Does he have valid reasons for his behavior or is he just a cement-filled bastard? As Elaine, Clarkson does her usual aristocratic Mona Lisa thing, registering everything from joy to shock to rage with the most imperceptible of flickers. Without some sort of backstory her character's rapid descent into cruelty defies explanation, though it's not as puzzling as her ultimate solution to the problem.
And Sarsgaard just gets better and better every time he steps in front of a lens. Robert's hysterical breakdown after sex with Jeffrey is one of the most raw, uncomfortable moments I've seen on screen in some time. Sarsgaard's languid intensity and is-he-or-isn't-he ambiguity --- used to great effect in Kinsey --- brings to mind a young John Malkovich, who actually played Sarsgaard's musketeer dad in the beautifully cast yet horribly executed remake of The Man in the Iron Mask.
Craig Lucas adapted his 1998 off-Broadway play for his first foray into directing. And he skillfully navigates waters that have swallowed up others who have tried to leap from stage to screen. Lucas has a little Tinseltown experience, having scripted films like Prelude to a Kiss and the landmark AIDS drama Longtime Companion, but he definitely has a filmmaker's eye, whether he's shooting a tabletop tryst between Jeffrey and Robert in fiery silhouette or simply shoving the camera in the faces of his dependably awesome cast for maximum impact.
Steve Reich's mundane and plinky score is de rigueur for films in which characters that seem to have it all are still vaguely dissatisfied. And the foreshadowing... well, I guess it's a bit of a Catch-22: When a filmmaker telegraphs, it's usually obvious enough to send the eyeballs of a viewer skyward. Without a little foreshadowing, however, the filmmaker runs the risk of alienating the audience with a third-act revelation from out of nowhere. Your only real defense as a moviegoer is to limit yourself to one film every five years or refrain from thinking until it's time to remember where you parked your car.
The Dying Gaul (R), directed by Craig Lucas, is opening Friday, January 11, at the Little Theatres.