The Living End

Josh Bell

The Living End

** 1/2

Mike Dytri, Craig Gilmore, Darcy Marta

Directed by Gregg Araki

Not rated

Before he was showered with critical acclaim and industry respect for his tender, heartbreaking 2004 drama Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki built his reputation on nihilistic no-fi, no-budget indies like The Doom Generation and Totally Fucked Up. One of his earliest efforts, 1992’s The Living End, is getting a theatrical re-airing before a forthcoming expanded DVD release. It’s just as trashy as the relatively well-known Doom (which has a sizeable cult following), but a little more serious and even contemplative at times.

At a time when gay life and the AIDS epidemic were rarely if ever addressed in pop culture, Araki made a movie about two HIV-positive gay men on a road trip from hell. Hustler-with-a-death-wish Luke (Dytri) casually destroys property and murders gay-bashers, all with the same shrug and unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. When Luke barges into the car of shy writer Jon (Gilmore), the two begin an alternately sweet and violent romance that’s doomed from the start.

Araki spends maybe a third of his time grappling with serious, weighty concerns about AIDS and its implications for gay culture, and the movie has a handful of truly touching moments (toward the end, Luke cuts himself and stares at his blood, wondering how this foreign entity could be inside of him if he can’t see it). But those are outweighed by the slapdash plotting and go-nowhere set pieces, which seem designed mainly for cheap shock value. Dytri and Gilmore pull off the weird romance relatively well, but no one else in the movie has much in the way of acting ability.

The Living End is thus probably more valuable as a cultural artifact than a movie, the beginning of Araki’s own personal queersploitation genre. Its take on AIDS seems almost quaint at times, but does more to distill the fears and anxieties of HIV-positive people in the early days of the disease than Angels in America did in six hours, and throws in a few stabbings for good measure. Now that Araki’s gone all respectable, it’s interesting to see where he came from, even if where he ended up is much more satisfying.

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