Fear And Loathing In Nebraska

Brandon Teena Is A Girl Among Men In The Intense And Artful 'Boys Don't Cry.'

I HAVE BEEN jumped in a dark alley by amphetamine-addled skinheads, I've spun out at 70 miles an hour on a crowded highway, and I've seen Newt Gingrich naked, but none of these compares to the sheer terror of just being in Nebraska.

I think it's the flatness, and that the closest thing to a cultural center in the entire state is Omaha, which is to culture what James Belushi is to comedy, but Nebraska is just freaking terrifying. You can stand in the middle of the busiest highway in the state, in the middle of the day, and see nothing but horizon in every direction. I mean nothing but horizon -- no buildings, no cars, not even a tree. That, my friends, is enough to evoke a cry of "The horror, the horror," from the most soulless land developer in the Southwest.

It is just this terror which forms the background for Boys Don't Cry, a film that's been playing in New York and L.A. for a couple of months, but which we're lucky enough to get now like a blast of rain during the movie industry's dry season.

Boys tells the true story of Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena, a Nebraska teenager who decided, as she left adolescence, to live as a man. Now, in the middle of Midwestern nothingness, people like to have a few things straight to anchor their sensibilities, and a woman who dresses like a man and dates other women is not exactly going to find a lot of politically correct, supportive helpmeets to form a loving community of affirmation. Thus, Teena Brandon left the hellish micropolis of Lincoln, where enough people knew her as a girl to make her transforming act uncomfortable, and headed out to the hellish hamlet of Falls City ("city" apparently being a term that Nebraskans like to apply ironically).

There she met and fell in love with Lana Tisdale, and befriended Tisdale's felonious pals John Lotter and Tom Nissen, who were happy to pal around with Brandon while they thought she was a he, but when they found out she was a she, thought it best to express their moral indignation at her lifestyle by raping and beating her.

The sensitive local police officer who took her complaint reckoned that Lotter and Nissen would do well to be left roaming the streets, in case there were other deviants who needed some attention, and so Teena's life was put in extreme danger, and she was forced to flee Falls City. Things only got uglier after that, and it took federal marshals to come in and clean up the mess that the local law had seen fit to create (or at least allow).

Boys stays very close to this true story, so close that some of those involved set lawyers upon the filmmakers, and thus Lana Tisdale's mother is only referred to as "Lana's Mom," and Lotter and Nissen are credited only as "John" and "Tom."

It would be easy to go wrong in this sort of movie by simply demonizing the criminals, or portraying small-town America as stupid, ignorant and narrow-minded, but writer/director Kimberly Pierce (who also directed the documentary version of this tale, The Brandon Teena Story) avoids that through three tools: a story that shows how Lotter and Nissen could be tremendously compatible with Brandon Teena, while still being intolerant of Teena Brandon; cinematography that allows the Nebraskan landscape to play the role of silent accomplice; and incredible performances by virtually all the cast members.

It's the acting that's been getting the most press for this film, as both Hilary Swank, who plays Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon, and Chloe Sevigny, who plays Lana Tisdale, have been nominated for Academy Awards. Both are fabulous in completely different ways.

Swank has the difficult task of playing a woman who was completely capable of passing herself off as a man. Usually, when a character in a film has a secret, the actor playing that character winks at the audience, so that we can see through to what other characters in the film are missing. Swank doesn't do this at all: she's completely convincing as a man (or at least a boy), so it's unnervingly eerie when she's forced to reveal her sex to Lotter and Nissen. Even though the audience is in on the secret, it's still a total shock when it's revealed, which is an incredible testament to Swank's acting.

Chloe Sevigny's role, as Brandon Teena's girlfriend, has a difficult subtlety in another vein; she's the human face of Falls City. If she's simply fooled by Teena's tricks, then the best small-town America has to offer is the good-hearted rube. If she's always aware of what Teena's doing, then she's just duplicitous. Instead, she manages to convey a middle ground between knowing and being fooled, a kind of open curiosity about what Teena is that's not simply non-judgmental, but is more a kind of morally proper indecision.

Also great is Peter Sarsgaard as John. He plays him as the kind of guy who'd make a great friend, which makes the scene where he attacks Teena far more disturbing than if he'd simply been portrayed as a scumbag. It's due in large part to his nuanced acting that this movie is so disturbing -- a slasher-film-style killing simply cannot compete with the visceral effect of Boys' violence.

Some critics have described Boys' cinematography as "dreamlike," but that would have muted the violence, the desolation of the Midwest, and the odd beauty of the actors' faces. Rather, the film has a drugged-out quality, perfectly matching the doped boredom of the characters.

Boys is probably too intense for some, but if you can stand strong effect, and are as starved for good cinema as most people are at this time of year, you really couldn't do better than to check out this movie.

Boys Don't Cry opens Friday at Century El Con theater (202-3343).