Martyrs and Movies

On New Year's Eve 1993, in the dead-end town of Falls City, Nebraska, two men shot and stabbed Teena Brandon, a 21-year-old who, in defiance of the laws of biology, wanted desperately to live her life as a man. On October 6, 1998, two men smashed the head of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, and left him tied to a deer fence outside Laramie, Wyoming. Both killings have become national causes célèbres. Teena Brandon's tale, already the subject of the harrowing documentary The Teena Brandon Story, has now been made into the remarkable film Boys Don't Cry, and a cinematic retelling of the short life of Matthew Shepard cannot be far behind.

With pollsters reporting that most Americans oppose discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, a sea change in just a generation, it is tempting to conclude that intolerance, let alone hate, is waning. But the ugly murders of Teena Brandon and Matthew Shepard reveal another territory—the psychological Wild West, its volatile landscape formed by impulse and passion, fearfulness, and rage. In the year since Matthew Shepard's death, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs has documented 31 gay-bashing murders, and the fact that these murders are often much more violent than the typical homicide is suggestive of the psychological stakes.

As the language of sexual deviance is replaced in public conversation by a rhetoric of rights, these brutal acts become the stuff of martyrdom and the wellspring of political action. Teena Brandon is literally the poster child for this movement: As the ad campaign for Boys Don't Cry contends, she was killed because she "dared to be herself." She and Matthew Shepard are exhibits A and B in the campaign, spearheaded by Shepard's mother and already successful in 21 states, to make a victim's sexual orientation, like race and religion, a reason for prosecution in hate crimes.

Yet real lives are always more complicated and cluttered with inconvenient truths than are morality plays, in which innocence and guilt are distinctly separate. To acknowledge such complexity is not to explain away the terrible deed, but to begin to make sense of it. Boys Don't Cry delivers just such a layered narrative. Its achievement is to pull us deep inside the lives of both victim and victimizer. In doing so, it gives us a political education that no morality play ever could.

Teena Brandon is a Jay Gatsby for these sexually perplexing times, the epitome of the American dream that reinvention is always possible—that one can live a life rooted in desire, regardless of biology. As Kimberly Peirce, the film's director and co-writer, envisions her, Teena doesn't think of herself as fitting one of the off-the- shelf labels, lesbian or transsexual or transvestite. She dismisses the idea of having a sex-change operation because it costs so much; besides, she believes that she can have what she wants, the love of a woman for a man, without surgery. She has lived all the 21 years of her life in Lincoln, Nebraska, a place where such desires are unspoken; when she describes herself as having a "sexual identity crisis," she is lifting a phrase from the cheap pamphlets that are the only source of her knowledge.

We begin to sense the contours of her desperation from the movie's opening shots, which send us flying down a perfectly straight two-lane highway through a flat and featureless landscape. The only light is cast by headlights shining on the void. This is the unforgiving country of Badlands and In Cold Blood, a Death Valley of the soul.

The film cuts to the inside of a trailer, where Teena Brandon morphs into Brandon Teena. She cuts her hair short, binds her breasts, and stuffs a sock inside her jeans—the costume a representation of desire. The transformation is carried off by actress Hilary Swank with such pitch-perfect intimacy that we see Teena as Brandon, not as a psychological case study (or an acting tour de force) but as someone who, during two hours in a darkened theater, we begin to know.

Her long-suffering cousin is less admiring. "You're a boy," he says. "Now what?" That is the right question for our attention, and for hers.

But Brandon doesn't want to think about consequences. He also wants to deny his own history, the check-kiting and car-theft charges that hang over—and ultimately unravel—his life. He lives entirely in the present, fueled by instinct.

For a while, he makes it. Almost by accident, he winds up in Falls City, a hellish place with its boarded-up main street and falling-down houses. He falls in love with Lana, who works at the canning factory and dreams of getting out. He offers her attentiveness and intimacy, flowers and luxuriant kissing, not a six-pack and wham-bam sex, and she responds. "I've been bored my whole fucking life," she tells him, and they imagine themselves on the road, bound for Graceland, where Lana will be a karaoke singer and Brandon her manager.

Brandon wants desperately to be one of the guys. And the guys who hang around Lana are John and Tom, two perpetually stoned ex-jailbirds living off the proceeds of occasional robberies. Vio lence comes as easily to them as breathing. They mutilate their own bodies with knives to hold onto what they call, borrowing the language of their prison therapist, "impulse control." Yet they are not cardboard caricatures. Initially, in fact, they are taken with Brandon, in all his charm and strangeness.

"Everything is right this time," Brandon assures his cousin, but in fact everything is entirely wrong. The law swoops in. Brandon is arrested—as Teena, of course—for ducking a court hearing on the car-theft charge, and his cover is blown. To Lana, though, the revelation doesn't feel like a betrayal. Perhaps she has known from the start; perhaps she refuses to know. It's a response that could have seemed contrived, but Chloe Sevigny's nuanced performance lets us suspend our disbelief as well.

But the revelation pushes John and Tom, already seething about the fact that their mascot has outdone them at their own game by becoming the local Lothario, to break loose from their tenuous constraints. They kidnap Teena, then take turns punching and raping her, sex and violence horrifically merged. When Teena reports the crime to the police, John and Tom track her to the shabby farmhouse where she is hiding. There they kill her, again and again. John shoots her and smashes her dead body with his fists, then Tom plunges his knife deep into her heart.

Boys Don't Cry joins the credibility of a documentary with the emotional charge of Romeo and Juliet. Composite characters are created, and the time frame is shortened to heighten the dramatic tension. The soundtrack, mostly country-and-western laments about jilted lovers and heartbreak, echoes the characters' moods. Nebraska is filmed as a prairie version of an Edward Hopper painting: brightly lit interiors and a menacing, relentlessly empty night. The characters are portrayed with pitiless clarity, stripped clean of sentiment.

There is no political sound bite to extract from Boys Don't Cry. Quite the contrary: Only the willfully naïve could believe that a hate crime law could rule the passions of men like John and Tom. And the Teena Brandon of Boys Don't Cry is not a profile in courage. We see her instead as someone much more fully human, a venturesome and vulnerable adolescent engaged in the familiar and messy task of forming an identity. As a result, the hate crime that is her death becomes a knife in our own hearts.

When John and Tom discover that Brandon is really a girl, they drag her into the bathroom and pull down her pants, forcing Lana to witness the physical truth of Teena's sex. Pinioned, her arms held straight out, her head haloed by light, Teena looks as if she is being crucified—even as, in death, Matthew Shepard appears on that Wyoming fence as a crucified figure.

There will surely be a Matthew Shepard movie, and the national outpouring of grief that accompanied his death will make canonization hard to resist. But the real Matthew Shepard story—the tale of someone who, like Teena Brandon, was a work in progress—is far more compelling than any canonization. Matthew Shepard made no secret of his sexual orientation, while Teena Brandon lived a life of secrets, but there are similarities in these stories, beyond the obvious fact of their terrible deaths. Matthew, like Teena, is struggling to emerge from a history laden with shadows. Both are petite, almost angelic in appearance. The men who befriend and then kill them are themselves relatively slight, buddies in perversity with their own sexual secrets. The two movies could easily be cast with the same actors.

What happened on the night that Matthew Shepard was murdered is as draped in uncertainties as Rashamon. Why did this preppie college student, spiffy in his blazer, rep tie, and patent leather shoes, leave the bar with a couple of rednecks who were raunchy from a day's labor and too broke to pay for their five-dollar pitcher of beer?

What motivated Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson—young men very much like John and Tom in Boys Don't Cry, barely able to contain their fury—to go beyond simply taking Shepard's wallet, to indulge in an orgy of violence? Does the obvious symbolism indicate why they repeatedly kicked him in the groin? What can possibly explain why they smashed his head over and over, 18 times, with the butt end of a .357 pistol and then, in an almost comic touch, took his patent leather shoes?

Aaron McKinney has offered conflicting accounts of what led up to the killing. Early on, he claimed that Matthew Shepard hit on him in the bar, driving him to an uncontrollable rage, and that is the version of events his lawyer put forward (unsuccessfully) at his trial. But at other times, McKinney has said that he knew Shepard was gay but that Shepard didn't hit on him . . . that he told Shepard that he was gay . . . that he didn't know Shepard was gay, but only meant to rob him until things somehow got out of hand.

McKinney had been molested in the past, his lawyer announced in his opening statement, and the memory evoked rage. Yet the lawyer also told the jury that when his client was 15, he had consensual sex with a man. How does that bit of life history figure into what he did?

Could a film of Matthew Shepard's life move—as Boys Don't Cry does—beyond all the stereotypes, the innocent and the ignoble, to probe these puzzles and the wounded souls that they reflect? Such a telling, far more than the quintessentially liberal call for tolerance, is needed to map, if not someday to contain, the psychological Wild West of sexual threat and violence.

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