One quality I admire in the young actor Emile Hirsch is his willingness to take risks in choices of material. In his debut, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, the risks paid off: the movie’s evocation of Catholic boyhood gave flesh to the spirit of the novelist Chris Fuhrman’s testimonial, “Jesus Christ had been bone meal and rumors for most of 1,974 years, but we were only thirteen.” Hirsch’s portrayal of a sensitive youth caught between extremes (salvation and damnation, the mystery and the mundane) served as the film’s gravitational pull—the fine work of Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, and Jodie Foster notwithstanding.
After starring in a couple of major studio lead balloons, Hirsch returns to indie filmmaking with The Mudge Boy, a movie that captures certain realities of growing up ostracized, i.e., a sweet, needy outsider who will endure nearly any humiliation or abuse to be accepted by peers. The early scenes of farm boy Duncan Mudge (Hirsch) riding in the back of a pick-up truck amidst the in-bred, local yahoos as they taunt and tease him for being shy, for having a pet chicken, for any number of reasons that make sense only to the tormentors, ring painfully true. The writer-director Michael Burke (it’s his first feature) portrays these wild rides through shaded country lanes with an accuracy that implies experience.
Although I lived with an aunt and uncle who raised chickens in a rural area south of Atlanta until I was 7, I can’t speak with any authenticity of the bonds that develop between children and farm animals. Thus, it amazed (and horrified) me to watch Duncan insert a live chicken’s head into his mouth and proceed to suck on the chicken for what seemed, in movie time, to last a small eternity. If Burke wants viewers to squirm at this mild form of bestiality, well, this viewer did. There are a few charming scenes with Chicken (as Duncan unimaginatively names his beloved pet): it parades atop the kitchen table, pecking from the same cereal bowl as his master; it learns a few tricks of the canine variety. Yet dread infuses even these moments—we sense that something terrible will happen to Chicken, most likely at the hands of the rowdy bumpkins whom Duncan mistakes for friends.
There are two climactic torture scenes in The Mudge Boy. Both stem from Duncan’s attraction to a butch dairy farmer named Perry (described in the press kit as a “strapping lad.”) Duncan’s given to a bit of cross-dressing at home; he sometimes wears the full-length mink coat that belonged to his deceased mother, and here questions arise. How did a farmer’s wife ever afford this coat? Or why did a woman with a mink marry a farmer? The late Mrs. Mudge possessed quite an abundant wardrobe; her widower (Richard Jenkins) broods over it incessantly. So, Duncan identifies with the feminine. Clear enough. The sexual situations that Burke concocts, however, are distasteful contrivances. In the shed where Mr. Mudge has moved his wife’s personal effects, Perry (Thomas Guiry) encourages Duncan to play dress-up in his dead mother’s clothing.
Let’s stop right here for a second. Shouldn’t a moratorium be imposed on movies about dressing up in a dead person’s clothes?
Perry, who has boasted of his (hetero-)sexual exploits to Duncan in graphic detail, insists that the boy slip into his mother’s wedding gown. I could believe everything that Duncan does until this point. In this sequence, the film ceases to be about characters, or even caricatures, and becomes a grotesque parody of a wedding night: in other words, merely an effect the director wants to push through. Once Duncan’s in the gown, Perry curses at, hits him, forces him orally, and then anally rapes him. Burke goes one worse. Duncan’s father finds them, Perry leaves, and Duncan can’t reach the zipper on the back of the dress. It’s up to the father to unzip the gown, to unzip a second time what he should only have done a single time, and that with his wife, of course, as they set out on their lives together. Burke shoves the associations at us.
The sadism and brutality of The Mudge Boy surpass this spring’s other showcase for the joylessness of sex, the Scottish hipster tripe Young Adam. I can commend Burke for steering around sentimentality in a gay-themed film. He’s unsentimental, however, in a way that feels counterfeit—showing too much can be a dodge just as showing too little. I felt Burke was covering up for what he couldn’t accomplish by less outré means. Hirsch does extremely well, under the circumstances; he locates the dignity and the gentle humor in Duncan’s awkwardness, both in the slightly shamed, caved posture he adopts and in the pride Duncan exudes tunelessly braying “The Old Rugged Cross” in church one Sunday. – NPT
May 4, 2004