It’s always a challenge to integrate topical, complicated subjects into mainstream film. Gaybashing, for instance: Is it progressive to see a suspense movie grappling with homophobia and gaybashing or does it minimalize the crime, turning it into just another trope for the Hollywood gristmill?
The US feature Hate Crime raises such questions. Written by first-time director Tommy Stovall, the movie follows a gay male couple who go through a gaybashing/murder that turns into an intense whodunit. Superb acting and a very tight and suspenseful plot structure are the film’s highlights but the ending is an awkward and jumbled take on homophobia and justice.
“I wanted to make an entertaining and engaging thriller-type of movie with suspense,” states Stovall in an e-mail interview. “But I also wanted to make it about something significant and relevant to our society. Thankfully, I haven’t had any personal experience with this sort of intolerance. However, the movie is based on many actual hate crimes that have happened.”
In the film, Robbie (played by Seth Peterson) and Trey (Brian J Smith) are a young couple in the burbs ready for heteronormativity: house, marriage, there’s even talk of kids. But when the creepy (yet hot) Christopher (former Torontonian Chad Donella) moves in next door the two feel his Christian fundamentalism wafting in from every window.
One night, Trey is mysteriously gaybashed and left in a coma. All fingers point to Christopher. But with Christopher’s alibi and little evidence to go on, Robbie and friends decide to take justice into their own hands. Numerous plot twists and revealing secrets bring everything to a reasonable, yet unfulfilling, outcome.
While the film stands up against homophobia and the bad guys do get what’s coming to them, the characters’ sense of justice and morality feels shaky. Robbie’s vigilante quest for retribution puts too much emphasis on who perpetrated the crime rather than why or how. You get the sense that the film’s mystery-thriller component overshadows its social message.
The excellent performances truly hold the film together: Cindy Pickett as the wrought and confused mother of Trey; Christopher (Donella) and his pained aggression; Kathleen (Lin Shaye), the feisty neighbour; and the intensely driven Pastor Boyd (X-men 2’s Bruce Davison). “I would never have been able to get the outstanding cast that we got had they not cared so much about the subject matter and believed in the project,” says Stovall.
The movie shows admirable restraint refusing to paint all Christians as hateful. In one good yet didactic sequence, two different preachers weigh in on the gaybashing: one preaches “acceptance,” the other, “abomination.”
Yet some Christians are not too pleased at being painted so sinister. Stovall comments, “Some Christians are offended at the portrayal of the fundamentalists, while others are thankful that we are showing this side of their religion.
“A lot of people have actually learned something from the film — that religious intolerance, particularly against gay people, exists on an alarming level.”
Kudos to Stovall for making a film that foregrounds gaybashing and is a competent thriller. But Hate Crime still leaves the lingering question of whether one can truly do justice to such a troubling phenomenon when the focus veers too heavily toward entertainment.