Boys Don’t Cry (1999) was ahead of its time, even just twenty years ago. Before transgender rights were really at the forefront of politics, director Kimberly Peirce was delving into the story of Brandon Teena — a transgender man who faced a cruel world. Hilary Swank stars as Brandon, delivering an emotionally powerful performance that brings me to tears every time.
Boys Don’t Cry makes the audience question their own morals and worldviews. It opens one’s eyes to horrors and hardships they may have never even considered before.
There’s just something sinister and haunting that lingers under it all. This insidiousness pervades every muscle of its viewer until it has seized their thoughts and makes it impossible to look away. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is, but Boys Don’t Cry is a haunting film for several reasons.
If you’ve read my articles before, you would know that I am a big proponent of movie soundtracks and scores. Music is what makes the movie. It’s usually the first thing I notice in a film and it’s what can pull me into an otherwise slow-moving film (see: Blade Runner).
The soundtrack of Boys Don’t Cry is about what you’d expect from a pro-LGBTQ+ rights film: indie music mixed in with a few 80s throwbacks. Of course, Boys Don’t Cry adds its own spin with some twangy country every now and then, emphasizing the setting of the film in rural Nebraska.
But something is haunting about the use of music. Every song seems to have been picked because of the tension it carries. Even the happier melody of “Just What I Needed” by The Cars seems to be ready to snap into something sinister and melancholy at any point. The way this film contrasts its darker moments with lighter tunes messes you up and creates an eerie cognitive dissonance that truly makes this an uncomfortable viewing, which I’m sure is exactly what Peirce wanted.
Light vs. Dark
The lighting of this film is all-or-nothing. It’s either blinding white light from artificial sources or pitch black in the empty country landscape. If there is any sort of in-between lighting, it makes the scene intensely uncomfortable and only heightens that aforementioned tension.
When Brandon first wakes up at Candace’s (Alicia Goranson) house, happy for the first time in his life, the lighting is bright and happy; the scene is lit with natural daylight and the environment is a joyful one. When the horrific scene of Brandon’s rape plays out, the lighting switches between pitch black in the middle of nowhere to the uncomfortable dim light of the car. Those choices in lighting serve to create an uncomfortable dynamic.
If I were to take a very symbolic stab at this, I would say the lighting reflects what is expected of Brandon. People would rather Brandon remain a girl or come out as a lesbian — light or dark. When Brandon refuses to be anything but a man in love with a woman, it puts his friends in the uncomfortable in between. The lighting is neither dark or light and it puts the audience in an uncomfortable state of limbo.
Liberal Use of Profanity
I may have just been raised in a very conservative, religious section of the world (Utah tends to be that way), but I really don’t think people use profanity as much as movies think they do in real life. In most movies, the overuse of profanity tends to give the whole film a bit of a tough-guy persona. It can easily be overdone. However, Boys Don’t Cry uses it in a way that, yet again, haunts me.
The way the characters in this film use profanity, you can easily see that their crassness is a coping mechanism. All of the characters are, to be it kindly, dead-end losers. John (Peter Sarsgaard) has only recently been released from jail and has no prospects in life. Tom (Brendan Sexton III) drinks all the time and doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on life or reality. Lana (Chloë Sevigny) is stuck in the boonies of Nebraska and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Their profanity is a poetic way of cursing their life and it makes the audience uncomfortable. The way a main character can just so casually throw out an f-bomb is decidedly off-putting, especially when there doesn’t seem to be an event that provokes such a response. It sets the mood from the beginning that this movie is going to be depressing and it’s going to hurt you in the end. It’s all extremely disconcerting.
Footloose and Fancy-Free Plot
Something I really enjoy about indie movies is that the characters are generally pretty fancy-free. This is true of Boys Don’t Cry: these characters exist to party, drink beer, and “bumper ski.” They have jobs but we don’t see them working nor do we care. We’re more interested in the daydreams and aspirations of these characters rather than their actual actions.
This adds another layer of eeriness to the film that just lurks underneath the plot. While Brandon is courting Lana and Tom and John are getting more aggressive and suspicious, the rest of the movie is generally relaxed. Brandon isn’t worried about finding a job and Lana isn’t stressed about keeping her own job, to the point that she leaves halfway through a shift to have sex with Brandon. It lures the audience into a false sense of security that we know isn’t going to last so we savor each happy moment as it comes; it’s this savoring that makes the movie so heartbreaking in the end.
Maybe it’s just me, but the fact that these characters aren’t busy all the time and they have time to overthink things makes everything a lot more sinister. Nothing is taking the characters’ minds away from the main story, so it becomes that much more intense. A one-track life is unusual in real life, so having a character have a one-track life in a movie, especially one bent on evil, is just unsettling.
My Compliments to the Director
I’m pretty sure this eerie, unsettled feeling is exactly what Kimberly Peirce wants her audience to feel. She wants them to feel uncomfortable, to confront difficult subjects. Peirce wants the audience to dig deep into parts of themselves they would rather leave alone. She wants to create that tension to start a conversation.
That is exactly what Boys Don’t Cry does — it creates so much tension that conversation is inevitable. It forces its audience to look at the issues rather than turning their heads to a more pleasant subject; there isn’t a more pleasant subject. We have to watch these characters destroy their lives and be put into awkward, horrible situations. Peirce forces you to look at the evils of society and it works beautifully.
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