By the end, you’ll feel like you’ve seen it all before. But for a good while, Retake, the feature debut of writer-director Nick Corporon — mainly known for LGBT-themed short films like Last Call (2009) and Barbie Boy (2014) — seems like it’s carving out some distinctive new territory in the well-trod world of queer cinema.
Initially, the movie comes off like a thriller, introducing the first of its two lead characters — handsomely grizzled middle-ager Jonathan (Tuc Watkins) — with jagged edits, intensified sound design (you’ll never hear a suitcase handle click with as much epochal flamboyance) and a droning score in the Cliff Martinez vein. It feels like anything could happen, and when Jonathan first sets his eyes on a beestung-lipped Los Angeles male prostitute (Devon Graye) who he insists on calling Brandon, there’s a very definite feeling of danger, if not murder in the air.
The aura of death quickly subsides, though the menace remains. Jonathan makes it clear upfront that he wants Brandon to role-play with him — to be, in effect, the callow young submissive to his stoic domineering daddy. Corporon very incisively captures the simultaneous threat and allure of sex between strangers, as well as the unbridled pleasure that can result from giving yourself so trustingly to someone you don’t know. Really, there’s enough in that messy mental and physical space for an entire feature, which makes the film’s increasing conventionality that much more frustrating.
Corporon maintains the interest of the early scenes for a while, as Jonathan pays Brandon a good deal above his usual rate to accompany him on a road trip from L.A. to the Grand Canyon. The older man’s motives are murky, and his actions (stopping at very specific motels, restaurants and tourist sites; taking Brandon’s picture with an old Polaroid camera) tread a fine line between curious and creepy. It’s still easy to understand why Brandon goes along with it all. The transactional nature of the duo’s relationship keeps genuine feeling in check, and there’s real drama and intrigue in that tension.
But the role-play boundaries are eventually breached, and it’s at that point that the film takes a hard turn toward dime-store psychology and easy sentiment. The more Jonathan and Brandon reveal about their wounded selves, the less original and more irritatingly “indie” Retake becomes. (The cloying semi-redemptive finale is an especially big misstep.) Corporon still has an evidently strong hand with his performers — not only Watkins and Graye (both stalwart supporting actors given a rare chance to shine in lead roles), but with Derek Phillips and Sydelle Noel as a mixed-race couple who Jonathan and Brandon run into on the road, and who seem to be occupying a fascinating movie all their own.
Production company: Closing Time Productions
Cast: Tuc Watkins, Devon Graye, Derek Phillips, Sydelle Noel, Kit Williamson, Andrew Asper, Jody Jaress, Miller Tai, Malcolm Bowen, Rod Harrel
Director-screenwriter: Nick Corporon
Story by: Collin Brazie & Nick Corporon & Gareth Dutton & Justin Oberts
Producers: Sean Mandell, Collin Brazie, Nick Corporon
Cinematographer: Collin Brazie
Editor: Thom Newell
Production designer: Yikai Wang
Costume designer: Flora Guilbaut
Sound design: Yu-Ting Su
Not rated, 98 minutes