I would never want to criticize a film for being insufficiently salacious, and I'm not doing so now. But in a movie that involves the sexual and ambiguously semi-romantic relationship between a gay cop and a male hustler, one cannot help but expect to see at least one kiss, for believability if nothing else. The lack of one in what is generally a satisfying and enjoyable little flick certainly isn't a fatal flaw, but it is indicative of an interesting truth: Sometimes it’s the little, almost intangible, touches that make the difference between a great film and one that is merely quite good. In the case of In The Flesh, it was just a few small things here and there that kept me from being drawn into the lives of its characters quite as much as I would have liked.
The movie starts with Phil (Ed Corbin), a narcotics cop, being assigned the undercover task of eliminating the drug trade at a local gay hustler bar. As it turns out, Phil is gay (and closeted), and after some prodding eventually ends up renting the services of Oliver (Dane Ritter) – the "star" hustler working at the bar – for one night. Phil's life becomes complicated when one of Oliver's clients is murdered under circumstances that make Oliver a primary suspect. Feeling enough of an emotional connection with Oliver to be certain he's not the killer, Phil lies to provide him with an alibi, coming out and getting suspended from the force in the process. He ends up letting Oliver stay with him after the latter is evicted from his apartment due to the publicity over the murder and the revelation that he’s a hustler. This gives the two an opportunity to get to know each other better and share some emotional and (possibly) physical intimacy, as the mystery of the real murderer plays out to a satisfying conclusion.
Overall, I’d say the movie is well-written and ably directed. The practical “whodunit” aspect seems to make sense (putting aside some minor quibbles), and includes a few nicely placed, deliberately false, leads for the audience. The dialogue does a decent job of straddling the line between believability and melodrama, while mostly avoiding the sort of clichés that can attach themselves to a story such as this. And the budding relationship between Phil and Oliver – which, of course, is the real draw of the movie – is given sufficient time to develop, though it is perhapse left a bit too ambiguous where it will eventually lead. Certain aspects of character motivation are certainly not without their difficulties, as discussed below, but the most important point is that we end up caring what happens to these guys, and hoping for the best for them.
Regarding the two main characters, the most interesting one, as always, is the one with the most “issues”: Oliver, the attractive hustler whose air of arrogant bravado belies the emotional vulnerability and troubled self-esteem that lay beneath. Though understandably world-weary and casually dismissive of many around him, he is never deliberately cruel, and is in fact extremely gentle with, and protective of, those about whom he cares. These include his drug-addicted sister Lisa and Mikey, an adorably childlike, mentally-challenged street kid. Ritter does a good job portraying Oliver, communicating both his underlying vulnerability and his reluctance to let it show. (It’s hard not to be attracted to this combination of a desire to be strong with an underlying need to occasionally be weak. I can somewhat understand why writer/director Ben Taylor stated in the commentary that he had had a bit of a crush on Ritter.)
The character of Phil is bound to be somewhat weaker sauce, by comparison: Strong, manly, and tremendously decent – almost as if he had been written to be certain gay men’s conception of the perfect “gay straight man” – but stoic to the point that he is rather boring on his own. We learn he once had been married to the head cheerleader from high school and hated it, but we don’t really get any sense of his prior experience with men. (To justify his sleeping with Oliver, we can assume it’s been quite a while since he’s been with a guy, if ever.) He doesn’t appear to have any real friends or internal life to speak of, and when not working on the case he seems to spend most of his time working on his car. In virtually every way, Phil personifies the still waters that (presumably) run deep.
And this, I think, is related to the first of the film’s problems: I don’t really believe that Phil would “come to the rescue” for Oliver the way he did, after sleeping with him just once. To me, it doesn’t make emotional sense for him to have such a strong conviction that Oliver was innocent that he would come out of the closet and risk his job – and, importantly, subvert the police process by lying to provide an alibi – for this hustler he’s known for such a short time. As I watched it, my gut feeling was that he was acting more from plot necessity than from what his character’s own personal motivation would actually be.
This is not a crucial failing, though. It could have worked if Phil had rented Oliver’s services a number of times before the murder occurred (rather than just once), because that would have given Phil a chance – and sort of an “emotional right” – to develop a sense of connection with Oliver (whether actually justified or not). But as it is, things feel rushed from an emotional point of view. (It’s true that there is a brief scene, after their time together but before the murder, in which Phil is discovered watching Oliver in a somewhat “stalkerish” way from his car, and receives a dressing down because of it. And one could offer this as evidence that Phil felt strongly enough about Oliver to go ahead with the whole “alibi” business, once events developed. But I feel there’s a world of difference between the sort of “schoolboy crush”-level stalking in which Phil indulges on that one occasion, and all the implications of inventing the alibi, later on.)
Once we get past this issue, the film’s main stumbling block is the emotional restraint with which Oliver’s and Phil’s relationship is depicted. This restraint is so great that I’m almost left wondering exactly what we’re supposed to believe Phil feels, and how far he’s willing to act upon it, despite all sorts of other evidence. Here’s what we see: Ever the gentleman, Phil makes it clear he’s not letting Oliver stay at his place just to get sex. Even after Oliver eventually expresses the fact that he’s developing real feelings for him, the most Phil will allow is a hug, until the night that Oliver walks into his room, quietly crying to himself over some emotional issues, and lies down with Phil, asking the latter not to speak.
It’s a nice little scene as far as it goes. The problem is that I’m still not sure exactly how far it does go. There is no kissing in what we see, no passionate embrace. Just Oliver’s head laid down on Phil’s bare chest as Phil holds him and Oliver gently cries. Rather than a prelude to sex, it appears that Phil is merely comforting Oliver in that “non-sexual but intimate” way that some close gay friends have. But when we see Phil wake up (alone), he’s naked, where before both he and Oliver had been in their underwear. (And he sort of does that sleepy, half-smiling reach-for-yor-lover sort of thing before he realizes Oliver is gone.) Subsequent dialogue between the two, while it certainly establishes that they’ve become emotionally intimate to the degree that Oliver is out of his comfort zone, could be interpreted either way with regard to the question of whether or not they had sex.
Perhaps I’m over-reacting to this ambiguity, but it affects my enjoyment of the film. Not the question of whether or not they had sex on that particular night, but the question of whether they’re meant to be heading towards a romance or just a sort of close, intimate, but non-romantic friendship. If there had just been a single romantic embrace, just one real kiss, between them, then I would have no doubt. Things would have felt emotionally honest, and everything would be fine. But if they are supposed to be developing a romance, then the lack of such a moment is a clumsy lapse in an otherwise decidely non-clumsy film. (My best guess is romance, but enough is left unshown, and essentially unsaid, that I’m really not sure. And the final scene, while rather sweet in any case, doesn’t really make this any more clear.)
I didn’t get the impression that such emotional ambiguity was deliberate, the way it is with some films. And while watching the movie the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was due to someone’s unease about showing physical intimacy between two men, rather than merely due to an overly-earnest desire not to be exploitive. Ben Taylor seems quite forthright in his director/writer’s commentary, and I don’t recall hearing anything to suggest the “unease” explanation, so I will accept that it was simply a case of erring too much on the side of discretion. But it is unfortunate, because as a viewer of the film, I found the whole question distracting.
One other thing that I found a tad unfortunate was the choice of Corbin to play the role of Phil. I would not at all say that he is a poor actor, but I don’t think he was a good fit in this case. His natural tendency is to underplay a role that is already written to be so restrained that its most intense onscreen display might be described as “smoldering”. Moreover, there are certain aspects of Corbin’s appearance – which I would liken to that of a hunkier version of Thomas Haden Church – that I found distracting. For example, his rather bug-eyed expression was so noticeable that a throw-away line referencing it ended up being incorporated into the film. And – I can't think of a more diplomatic way to say this – there were times that I couldn't help but react to what was supposed to be an innocent grin as if it were more of a leer. I can absolutely accept the likelihood that these reactions would not be provoked in the majority of viewers. But for me, at least, they had the undesirable effect of helping to "take me out of" the film.
It is certainly not my intention to focus on the shortcomings of this movie, as there is much more to praise in it than to criticize: The quality of its writing, its (mostly) clean and professional direction, the acting of Dane Ritter and most of the supporting cast, and the generally satisfying human story it tells (warts and all), to name a few. I consider it a noteworthy achievement that what was so clearly a low-budget labor of love could achieve a sufficient level of quality to make it worthwhile to point out its flaws. In other words, if it weren't worth the effort, I wouldn't bother pointing out the ways in which it's not perfect. In this way it’s kind of like Oliver himself. And his relationship with Phil.
Hmmm, fancy that.
Apparently unrated, but essentially R-level for language, adult themes, and some violence.
Extras include writer/director commentary, deleted scenes, and a picture gallery with (excellent) songs from the movie soundtrack.