Lost in the Movies: The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

In the film The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) stumble across a dying dog. The two middle-schoolers are stoned, returning from a visit to the drug dealer, from whom they've also purchased some animal tranquilizer, part of an elaborate plot to steal a cougar from a wildlife center. They hope to set it loose at their parochial school, an idea that seems as outlandishly cartoonish as anything in the comic books they illustrate in their spare time.

This other animal encounter, however, is all too real. Confronted by the suffering canine, Francis (the thoughtful protagonist in thrall to Tim's badass/smartass persona) seems both shocked and helpless. Lying by the side of the highway, guts spilling out onto the grass, the whimpering beast is obviously suffering, but what can be done? Tim, usually ready with a sarcastic quip, takes the matter into his own hands - literally - as he tries to carry the dog to safety. Moments later, it dies in his arms.

A similar incident occurs in the book upon which the movie is based, yet with a different outcome. The novel was composed by 31-year-old Chris Fuhrman on his deathbed; about a third of the way through, there's a flashback in which Francis recalls finding a dog on the outskirts of a shabby black neighborhood. Tim shouts angrily about the neighborhood's indifference, getting into a racially-charged argument with one black teenager and then, as in the movie, he tries to help the dog. But he does so by brutally killing it, putting it out of a misery he's certain the entire world shares.

This difference highlights the contrast between book and movie, for better and worse. The book is sharper and edgier than the film - more cutting in its characterizations of adult authority, and focused heavily on racial tension, a topic which is completely excised from the finished film. On the other hand, the movie is more complex and ambiguous in its approach: the subjectivity of literary narration is displaced into animated comic-book sequences inventively woven into the live action, and producer Jodie Foster is cast as the head nun whose severity is tempered by a certain sensitivity.

Foster's ambivalence about unsympathetic characters works for the nun, a composite of several characters in the book, and more compelling than any of them; however, this hesitation is less effective when it comes to Tim, who is still cocky and nihilistic in Culkin's hands, but loses some of his bilious hard edge. This desire to soften also frustrated animator Todd McFarlane, who was hired to do the animated sequences; even in the DVD's self-congratulatory special features, he complains that he wanted the cartoons to be grislier and more sexual, reflecting the dark, tough-minded sensibilities of teenage boys.

Ultimately, the book works better for me - it's less watered down. The director Peter Care's occasionally flat sense of dramatic development and a lack of rawness in the film's aesthetic both worked to undermine some of the story's important moments, at least for me. I also got the sense, watching those special features, that there were a few too many cooks in the kitchen; a lot of interesting ideas aren't quite woven together. That was my impression, anyway; I know people who adore this movie. For me it was more of an intriguing concept than a fully-realized work. That said, what The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys attempts onscreen interests me: in losing the often vital bitter nastiness of Fuhrman's authorial voice, it gains a more well-rounded view of human nature.

The best moment in the movie arrives when Francis sleeps over at his troubled girlfriend Margie Flynn's (Jena Malone's) house. He wakes up in the middle of the night to witness a melancholy female ghost stare at him from across the bed, calmly cross the room, and then disappear in the musty attic air. Chilling and subtle, the scene articulates the spirit of death which shadows both book and movie, balancing Tim's bleak view of a cruel and meaningless universe with Francis' sense of a life haunted by ghosts of memory - memories of fateful mistakes, memories of intense pleasures, and memories of the melancholy moments in between.

Obviously such ghosts haunted Fuhrman as he penned his one and only book, and its "fearful symmetry" (the dog scene is not the only one to involve animals and death) echoes the William Blake poem to which it pays tribute.


Sam Juliano said...

"Ultimately, the book works better for me - it's less watered down. The director Peter Care occasionally flat sense of dramatic development and a lack of rawness in the film's aesthetic both worked to undermine some of the story's important moments, at least for me."

I haven't read the book, but I can certainly still grasp and partially concur with what you say here. I am not amongst those who adore the film, but overall I like it a bit more than you do, though the veer off into tragedy is less effective. D'Onofrio and Hirsch was quite good.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, I forgot to mention d'Onofrio's performance. Though the role is relatively minor, he's excellent in it, and another example of the way the film embraces subtle characterizations, to its benefit.

Search This Blog