The Dying Gaul is not an easy movie to watch. I saw it during Austin Film Festival and it has taken that long for me to decide what I thought about it. I don't think I actually liked the movie, but it wasn't exactly the kind of movie you enjoy.
The descriptions I read about The Dying Gaul before I saw the movie all ran something like this: "A screenwriter receives an offer from a studio to buy one of his screenplays. The catch is that the screenplay is about a gay male couple, one of whom dies from AIDS, and the studio will not buy the script unless the writer changes the dying man to a woman." This is an apt description of the premise of the film, but it does not even begin to describe most of what happens during the movie.
The film is set in 1995, when gay main characters in film were even rarer than they are now. Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) does in fact agree to change the sex of the character in his script after studio exec Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) assures him that there is no way Hollywood is going to make a drama with gay male romantic leads. Robert feels like he is betraying his longtime partner Max, on whom he based the character, and whom Robert is still mourning; the script is a thinly disguised autobiography. However, the promise of an enormous amount of money sways him.
The minute I saw Campbell Scott and Peter Sarsgaard in the room together, I knew the two characters were going to end up in bed. It's the casting: both actors have played bisexual or gay characters before and I suspected they'd been cast because they were willing to do it again. That didn't detract from the film at all, and may actually have added suspense and interest.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey's wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson) meets Robert and finds him fascinating. She's a former screenwriter who put away her work and devoted herself to staying home and raising the kids, which doesn't seem to bring her any pleasure at all. Beware writers who can't write; they are prone to deep frustration and a hunger for drama, and might do all kinds of unpredictable things (this is true in life as well as movies). The only time she appears to genuinely enjoy herself is when she's swimming laps in the pool of their amazingly luxurious house.
So Robert is not only dealing with guilt from erasing his dead lover from his script, but from the inevitable advances of Jeffrey, particularly because Robert likes Elaine in a friendly, nonsexual way. As if that weren't enough to carry a film, Elaine decides to meddle in Robert's life and subsequently finds out some things she wished she hadn't.
At this point, Robert's script practically vanishes from the movie, other than providing an excuse for Robert and Jeffrey to hold "script meetings" alone. The movie turns from what might be dark comedy or light drama into a serious, disturbing relationship movie. However, it isn't all dull conversations about relationships, not at all. The movie is full of dark suspense. Elaine begins to manipulate Robert in an unforgivable way, and you fear the results will be awful and possibly tragic.
The ending didn't quite work for me. A certain piece of information dropped earlier in the movie seemed too obviously a setup for subsequent events. I knew it would pay off later, although I didn't know how. The ending didn't feel satisfying, but that might have been intentional.
I had trouble at first accepting that Robert actually believed some of the things he was told in online chatrooms. Maybe we're a little more jaded now than we were in 1995, or more likely his character was still so unstable that he would accept anything. It is a credit to Sarsgaard's acting that I did finally believe his character was behaving plausibly.
The Dying Gaul was written and directed by Craig Lucas, who adapted the script from one of his plays. This is his first time directing a feature film, although you can't tell from watching the film. Lucas has adapted several other films from his plays, including Longtime Companion (which also starred Campbell Scott) and Prelude to a Kiss. He also adapted Jane Smiley's novel The Secret Lives of Dentists (again starring Scott). The Dying Gaul seems a little stagy at times, but I wouldn't have known it was adapted from a play if no one had told me. Lucas did a good job of opening up the scope of story for the movie.
I was also impressed by the way he filmed the online chatroom sequences. It's a challenge to add visual interest to people typing away in front of computers, but this film gets away with it.
The performances are all first-rate. Peter Sarsgaard seems to be everywhere these days: I just saw him a few weeks ago in Flightplan, and he's also in Jarhead, which opens today. He may be my latest actor crush. And I'd just seen Patricia Clarkson last week in Good Night, and Good Luck. New Orleanians always remember her as city council member Jackie Clarkson's daughter, but it took us a long time to hear "Harry Connick" without thinking first of the district attorney. And it's always a pleasure for me to watch Campbell Scott, who underacts to great effect in this movie.
The Dying Gaul is an absorbing, fascinating film, but disturbing and a little grim. So if you're planning a fun night out, pick something else to see. But if you're in the right mood, the film is well worth watching.