Toronto
3 min

Twisting in a bitter wind

Life on the streets is never glamorous

Credit: Xtra files

Let’s get this out of of the way up front. Twist is a movie set amidst a world of hustlers and drug addicts in which not a bit of flesh is revealed. So if you’re looking for a side of titillation to go with your meal of male prostitution, best to look elsewhere.



And that’s just the way Twist’s Montreal-based writer/director Jacob Tierney wanted it. “It was crucial to me that the movie was never sexy and that it was never glamorous,” says Tierney during an interview after Twist’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. “This is the least glamorous world I’ve ever seen.”



The 24-year-old actor-turned-filmmaker (star of This Is My Father and Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible) is adamant that Twist is more than a movie about kids turning tricks. “It was never my intention to make a film about hustling or drug addicts. I wanted it to be about these people, these characters.”



What Twist does offer is a bleak but engaging story inspired by Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Where the novel situated the story of Oliver, the Artful Dodger and Fagin in 19th-century London against a backdrop of forced child labour, this Twist takes place in frosty Toronto, where a commodity of a different kind – the beauty and sexuality of young men – is exploited.



The film opens on Dodge (Nick Stahl) in a seedy motel room, trying desperately to get away from his latest trick. Dodge is one of a makeshift stable of runaways-turned-hustlers living in an abandoned factory under the distrustful eye of the violent Fagin (Gary Farmer). But there’s a much more malevolent presence running the show, Bill, the unseen but always feared master of this house. The boys working the streets for Bill congregate at The Three Cripples, a nondescript, decrepit diner where Nancy (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier), Bill’s beaten-down girlfriend, offers coffee and counsel.



When Dodge spies a new kid in town, the angelic-looking runaway Oliver (Joshua Close), he quickly lures him into the “family” and teaches him the tricks of the trade. Oliver is a willing pupil – he’s hungry, cold and alone, and falls hard for Dodge, the first person to take an interest in him in his life.



But Dodge resists Oliver’s advances, using heroin to escape his reality and the memories of the family he left behind in Montreal. The past catches up with Dodge in the form of his brother, David (Tygh Runyan), who has demons of his own that threaten to destroy them both.



Twist is a confident debut from Tierney, whose background as an actor helps him elicit outstanding performances from his cast. Although the film is jam-packed with several story strands and the weight of the source material sometimes gets in the way, Tierney manages to keep the viewer invested in his characters by giving his actors the freedom to fully inhabit their roles.



There’s not a weak link in the cast, and the performances – from Pelletier’s nervously courageous Nancy, to Farmer’s sinisterly sympathetic Fagin – are the glue that hold the film together. But it’s the boys – Stahl’s emotionally shell-shocked Dodge and newcomer Close’s naïve but believable Oliver – who deliver performances of intelligence and honesty.



Tierney eschews close-ups. “I like giving the actors the freedom to move and to engage their bodies and to live in something besides a tiny frame where they’re going out of focus every two seconds.” He likes to use expansive wide shots that capture entire conversations in one take. And the film has a cold blue look, emphasizing not only the chill in the air but the emotional deep freeze in which these characters exist.



Rising star Nick Stahl (Terminator 3, In The Bedroom, Bully) is the highest profile cast member and he came to the film after being Tierney’s roommate for three years, when the pair were struggling actors in LA. He, too, sees Twist as a film not about drugs nor prostitution. The character of Dodge is, in his words, “really complex, edgy and interesting – the kind of role I’m interested in.” Dodge turns tricks purely for drug money, and, says Stahl “having sex is nothing to him now – it’s a commodity, he’s become desensitized – it’s not an intimate thing.”



If Tierney makes the rookie mistake of trying to pack too much plot into the film – the meandering pace, short scenes and quick, smart character sketches of the first half give way to an ending that frantically tries to resolve too many story strands – he at least presents us with plenty of serious issues to think about along the way. There’s no doubt this young director has a bright future behind the camera, if Twist is any indication, he just may turn out to be one of Canada’s most interesting filmmakers.



* Twist opens Fri, Jun 4 in Toronto.