Computers, someone once said, allow one to communicate like an angel, as a “disembodied intelligence of great intimacy.” Likewise, The Dying Gaul is a visceral and yet displaced experience. Adapting his anguished late-90s play about a jagged love triangle, first-time director Craig Lucas forges a traditionally postmodern Greek tragedy in which the forces of love, creation, and the dead play against cross-cut Hollywood spaces and the ethereal nowhere of chat rooms. Like a responsible stage drama, the film leaves viewers debating the ethically and emotionally fraught characters. But in the transition to screen, it’s as if awkward pieces of lumber remain that don’t quite fit.
Peter Sarsgaard plays young screenwriter, Robert, who, along with his screenplay, is picked up by his wealthy producer, Jeffrey. Robert grows friendly with Jeffrey’s wife, Elaine, a bored ex-screenwriter who with nosy affection burrows into him. But through anonymous online chats with the unsuspecting Robert, Elaine uncovers the affair, and launches a massive, spiritually intrusive online deception with unsurprising repercussions.
Billed as a psychological thriller, The Dying Gaul is more closely aligned with Kushnerian theater than film, aspirations suggested by a powerful Steve Reich soundtrack and theatrical direct-to-camera staging. While Sarsgaard is terrific, Scott’s usual mastery of muted control comes to seem excessively affectless, and the wound-up Clarkson aggravates her character’s stilted dialogue with oracular delivery. Perpetually caught halfway, Lucas’s film chooses all the wrong moments to elaborate .
Intended ambiguities of motivation and character get muddled with missteps. As with the eponymous sculpture, viewers will have to engage emotionally alongside the film’s defeat.
Opens November 4 at Landmark Sunshine