Imagine the late William Hickey--maestro of cadaverous, insinuating evil--cast as Andre, a latter-day Fagin, operating a male brothel out of a lavish old Manhattan townhouse rather than running a gang of youthful pickpockets in Victorian London.
Hickey, Oscar-nominated for his ancient Mafia don in "Prizzi's Honor," is every bit as gleefully amusing as you would expect, but the film in which he stars, "Twisted," is not the kind of movie you might expect it to be.
Instead of serving up gay erotica, first-time filmmaker Seth Michael Donsky creates an urban underworld fantasy, a stylized, operatic fable of innocence and corruption in which he's more concerned with souls than bodies. He's primarily concerned with the salvation of Angel (David Norona), a sweet-natured hustler, and Lee (Keiven McNeil Graves), a runaway African American adolescent, who share a passion for music.
Dark and wiry, Angel works as a bartender and writes songs, but he's trapped in a dangerous, coked-up relationship with the abusive Eddie (Anthony Crivello). Eddie's a macho drug dealer who supplies the clientele at Andre's brothel, where Lee has ended up. Eddie also doesn't hesitate to force Angel into prostitution.
Andre is apparently in no hurry to turn Lee into a child prostitute, and Angel starts teaching Lee to play the piano that had belonged to Andre's opera singer-mother. But the more concerned Angel grows for Lee's welfare the more both become vulnerable to the malevolent Eddie and to one of Andre's resident hustlers (Jean Loup), eager to see the kid start paying his way. The strongest force for good in this tale is Shiniqua (Billy Porter), a caring and fearless drag entertainer at the bar where Angel works.
Donsky, who gives his cast the confidence to show considerable emotion, clearly understands that he is working with lurid material, and he plays against it, seemingly as inspired by Dickens as by the silent cinema in which melodrama, in the hands of masters like D.W. Griffith, became a way of expressing the harshness of life. Indeed, Donsky even uses old-fashioned intertitles as a narrative device.
The silent filmmakers often indulged in sentimentality, the obverse side of melodrama, but didn't flinch in depicting cruelty and injustice and the way in which it brutalizes and deforms its victims. Deliberate theatricality, invoking stage and screen techniques of the past, allows Donsky and his ace cinematographer Hernan Toro to suggest the eternalness of suffering and the redemptive impulse of self-sacrifice. By the time "Twisted" is over its world and that of Dickens seem one and the same.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film contains strong language, violence, drug use.
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William Hickey: Andre
David Norona: Angel
Keiven McNeil Graves: Lee
Anthony Crivello: Eddie
Billy Porter: Shiniqua
A Leisure Time Features release of a Dons Quixote production in association with Miravista Films. Writer-director Seth Michael Donsky. Producers Adrian Agromonte, Bernard Arbit. Executive producers Barry Witz, Mark Weiner. Cinematographer Hernan Toro. Editors Tom McArdle, Donsky. Costumes Rosemary Ponzo. Music Q Lazzarus, Danny Z. Production designer Scott Bailey. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.