Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
“Consider yourself…a ho!”—that would be the only tune that came to mind while I was watching Twist, a shot of Canadian rotgut that might fairly be considered the anti-Oliver!. Under writer-director Jacob Tierney’s modernizing touch, Dickens’ ragamuffin pickpockets are now rent boys trolling the cold streets of Toronto, warm-hearted Nancy (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier) runs the Three Cripples’ Diner and gets whacked around by never-seen boyfriend Bill, and Fagin (Gary Farmer) is a big pimp in a ponytail dispensing love and cudgelings in equal measure. Then there’s Fagin’s best boy, Dodge (Carnivàle’s Nick Stahl), a young sex-trade veteran who draws an enamored orphan named Oliver (Joshua Close) into the world of back-alley blowjobs and heroin pick-me-ups. Twist drags a whole passel of referents behind it, but the work it most nearly resembles is Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, which also freighted boy-whores with literary ballast (from Henry IV). Like that film, Twist is most awkward whenever it veers closest to its source material—the swirls of mystery around Oliver’s parentage, say, or, come to think of it, any line on the order of “Oliver, this is Fagin.” To his credit, Tierney wants to do more than put a few new wrinkles into an old narrative. He wants to follow it straight into the realm of street tragedy, with raccoon-eyed Dodge as moral compass. But even as Tierney forswears Victorian plot excesses—for example, reducing Nancy’s famous death scene to a one-line bulletin—he lurches into melodrama of his own. Indeed, Twist’s final story convolutions are no more convincing than Dickens’—and a good deal grimmer. And though it’s unlikely anything could actually drive me back to Oliver!, this movie does make a powerful argument for levity: All that droning acoustic music, all that grimed-amber Toronto light, all those needles in pasty flesh and those twitching Method actors with their wounded boy-souls…Please, sir, I want no more. —Louis Bayard