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The 1993 rape and murder of Teena Brandon in Humboldt, Neb., raised questions about sexual identity and the nature of love that reverberate more strongly the further Teena’s humanity is explored in the many media that remain fascinated with the story. Passing for a swaggering but sweet-natured young man called Brandon Teena in some of the bleaker Midwestern backwaters, the hero of this very individual journey found freedom and bliss in his apolitical transgression before finding a sorry end at the hands of two rednecks who couldn’t bear to have their sad, pat assumptions challenged.

The killers, Tom Nissen and John Lotter, are in jail now. Lotter’s on death row; Nissen, who saved himself by turning state’s evidence against his accomplice, is pathetically hoping to appeal. But that hasn’t stopped them, or many of the other major players in Brandon’s short, astonishing life, from talking freely with the press, notably the film crew who made last year’s The Brandon Teena Story, a well-received documentary that profiles not only the bad guys but Brandon’s true love, Lana (a delicate, dissipated blonde with haunted dark eyes), the trashy family that took him in, and a passel of slightly befuddled but extremely satisfied former girlfriends from Lincoln.

First-time feature director Kimberly Peirce leans on the facts for her story’s bones, but allows herself some streamlining of the plot near its tragic end and skips over Brandon’s youth. Boys Don’t Cry begins with Brandon’s coming out as a male and finding immediate success very much to his liking. Strapping, stuffing, and cutting his hair in preparation for an assault on the thick teenage hormonal stew of the local roller-skating rink, Brandon (Hilary Swank) has none of the apprehension of a teenager going out stag; he’s fidgety, grinning, crazy to get his new life going.

In Swank’s extraordinary portrayal, Brandon is literally high on testosterone, his wide-mouthed smile both blissed-out and self-assured, his rangy, rolling walk part gawky kid, part sexy cowboy. The actress never allows ego or the distancing effect of a calculated performance to intrude on the blistering reality of Brandon’s state of mind—horny, vain, in swoon to his newfound sexual aggression. When the first girl he approaches, surrounded by skeptical girlfriends, responds to Brandon’s tentative introduction, he allows himself a private moment of exultation, and there’s no larcenous glee in his relief—it’s all girl-crazy romantic anticipation. With his transformation, Brandon has entered what feels like, for a teenager, a pornographic wonderland, in which foxy young things are his for the picking.

Giddy with the power of hiding such a colossal secret, Brandon leaves behind girlhood, family (he moves in with his weary cousin Lonny), and the relativistic Christian morality that permeates and complicates heartland values. He steals to buy gifts for a string of pretty blondes and snatches cars off the street. At 21, with the law on his tail for such petty crimes, he takes off for Falls City, Neb. The Lincoln girls may spend the rest of their years wondering just what hit them when they were 16, but they all say the same thing: Brandon Teena knew how to treat a lady.

This statement is more than a wink in the direction of Teena’s sock-stuffed pants; its implications—that other boys and men did not know how to treat a lady and did not care to find out—are endemic to the portrait of the bullheaded Midwest that Peirce renders. Brandon never lets the girls forget that he is grateful to be their boyfriend, reveling not just in his own sexuality but in theirs. For the genetic males of the area, though, taking women for granted is an inevitable byproduct of a hardscrabble life, where gratitude for anything is hard-won. This is a place where all it takes for a nasty bar fight is two unemployed locals and one blonde on a bar stool with an unlit cigarette. What Brandon doesn’t seem to understand, even as he runs from Lincoln to the tiny and even more suffocating and hopeless Falls City, is that if a straight girl has no chance in a place like that, someone like him has even less. But the awesome power of being a man—so much more precious to a genetic female than to the biologically born—gives him a false optimism: Of course he can save the damsel in distress. It never occurs to him that he, too, fits that description.

After making a brief pit stop in the heart of the sweetly cow-eyed Candace (Roseanne’s Alicia Goransen), Brandon meets Lana (Chloe Sevigny). Sullen, snide, long-limbed, and distrustful, Lana entrances the new kid in town completely. He woos her with his good manners and obvious air of wonderment in her presence, and the two descend into a ravishing affair with all the obsessive dramatics of first love. Lana has a trashy mom (a brave and haunting performance by Jeanetta Arlette), a bunch of scummy friends, including Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and Nissen (Brendan Sexton III), and nothing to do. The guys challenge Brandon to “bumper-ski”—a dangerous hick pastime of monumentally stupid machismo; this is the kind of depressed, undereducated, poor-white Midwest where, while hopping from one roadhouse to another, six people pile into a sedan, each one smoking a cigarette.

Pretending to care about whether Lana’s being treated well—told the truth to—gives Lotter and Nissen a small measure of satisfaction that they can beat Brandon at his own woman-luring game. They see their moronic concern as chivalrous, and as Brandon and Lana’s love deepens, they try with increasing violence to find out what Brandon’s got that has her so fixated. Whether Lana is worth the accelerating trouble in which Brandon finds himself is left up to the character to decide—with exquisite restraint, Peirce doesn’t portray her as particularly special, although Sevigny has a delicacy and wary grace that is supremely appropriate to the factory-toiling Lana. Staggeringly drunk, she gasps at the glittering signs over the local minimall, murmuring, “Just like an album cover.” It is, and more; Peirce shoots in a sparkling high contrast, and everything takes place over the course of one velvety night after another, with glowing deep shadows and Brandon’s milky, killer cheekbones cutting through the darkness.

Brandon’s denial of his physiological self is just the bull’s-eye in a series of concentric circles of denial that make up this film’s emotional pattern, one that will be shattered by characters whose grasp of reality is so tenuous that they protect what little they understand of the world at all costs. By rejecting his genetic reality, Brandon enters a state in which values are as shifty and unreal as matters of sexuality—he indulges in his petty crimes with the slapdash aplomb of someone who can’t actually believe that the law bothers with this stuff. And Lana’s refusal to ascribe specific genitalia to her lover is an act of magnificent faith; it’s only through rejecting received notions of the “real” that these kids can survive at all.

Brandon, of course, does not survive. After being raped, he’s interrogated by the local sheriff, and, although Peirce generally keeps politics out of her story, it helps to know that it was law-enforcement foot-dragging that kept Lotter and Nissen out of jail and free to later kill Brandon and two others. (Their deaths are transferred to other characters here.)

“I got a sexual identity crisis,” Brandon explains hopelessly, before and after trying to convince Lana (who doesn’t want to hear it and couldn’t care less) that he’s a hermaphrodite. But that isn’t true, and he knows it. When Lonny demands that Brandon admit he’s a dyke, he bellows, “I’m not a dyke!”

Brandon Teena was a straight man in the body of a young woman. Being treated like a woman as the assaulters understand it—i.e., a rape victim—took away what freedom he had earned for himself as a man. It’s an act that would be poetically, metaphorically apt even if it weren’t true—and therefore specifically horrifying.

Even after the rape, Lotter and Nissen don’t know what to do with Brandon, switching between calling him “little dude,” “buddy,” and “faggot.” The film makes only one major mistake, when it errs on the side of the crushing literalism it has so far rejected: In a (fictional) last encounter between the lovers, Lana appears to capitulate to their affair as being a lesbian one, and they have rapturous girl-girl sex. But Boys Don’t Cry is too much in love with love to let mere sex get in the way. It dares to make magic happen in the uneasy spaces between secure identities.

“If the fate of twentieth-century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescense, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self…the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore the domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness…” Blah blah blah. A manifesto from David Fincher’s Fight Club? Only insofar as Fincher swallows wholesale the cult of brutal macho romanticism that has entranced the white middle-class intellectual elite since it was first articulated by Norman Mailer, who wrote the above words in 1959. If Fincher has anything to add to the anti-woman, anti-consumerist, anti-conformity rant, it’s not evident in his latest film, which seems to be more an homage to picturesque decay than to men getting together outrageously.

To paraphrase David Thomson in last Sunday’s New York Times, Fincher is probably a genius, but it doesn’t matter—he’s had four chances to make his genius movie and never quite has. Fight Club’s answer to the crushing anonymity of numb modern materialism is a return to the chick-free hunter-gatherer ethic, whose powerfully homoerotic overtones and dead-end extrapolations—and ultimate pointlessness; there’s a reason modern man doesn’t use his hunter-gatherer instincts—Fincher elides by escalating the club, with its ramifications, into a crack terrorist organization and then dodging all narrative accountability with the film’s vaunted “twist.” Fincher clearly wants audiences to think about his ideas, but he has only the will, no ideas; every potentially interesting aspect of the story is subverted by the overriding imponderables—its callousness to other victims of modern society less studly than Brad Pitt, its petty vision of rebellion, its swaggering philosophy articulated in parodically funny “Deep Thoughts” macho homilies. Fincher can’t make a boring movie, but he sure can make a stupid one. I mean, he doesn’t really believe all this stuff. Right? CP