Karmas collide in The Dying Gaul
By Noah Fowle
Wrapping his audience up in an intoxicating blend of suspense and heartbreak, Craig Lucas has created a seamless reinvention of his play in The Dying Gaul, his directorial debut. Unnerving in its believability, the story, set in the mid-nineties, hovers on timeless themes of betrayal, power, and sex. Thanks in part to the performances by the three leads, the story surpasses that of a common thriller, and its stunning climax elevates the film to the level of Greek Tragedy.
Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) is a fledgling screenwriter who receives a million-dollar script offer from a high-powered studio executive, Jeffrey (Cambell Scott), so long as Robert changes the love interest from a man to a woman. Robert initially balks at the offer, showing no desire to tamper with his most personal work, which is based upon his real-life love affair with a man who dies of AIDS. However, he soon becomes infatuated with the world that Jeffrey inhabits, and caves. He enters into an affair with Jeffrey (not his first), and then befriends Jeffreys wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), unknowingly reawakening her latent creative urges.
Lucas sets his most of his story in the castle-like home of Jeffrey and Elaine, using light and shadows to suggest the secrets that each character keeps from one another. As he sets up his characters colliding karma, Jeffreys power begins to wane, Elaines faith in her husband starts to erode, and Roberts sanity inches closer to a sinister precipice. Embedded in the suspense is a story of grief and pain, and the characters inability to cope with it. Sarsgaard perfectly captures the agony and nihilism associated with survivors guilt, while both Clarkson and Scott nail the growing feelings of doubt that stifle their once perfect marriage.
As the stakes grow larger and the carefully built castle begins to crumble, Lucas ekes out a series of realizations that set the stage for the final denouement. But what makes the film so singularly brilliant is that even as we watch Robert, Jeffrey, and Elaine scheme against one another, we feel as much for their own pain as the hurt they have caused.