(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on September 21, 2012.)
Every one of us is trying to carve out a little bit of love for ourselves in this world. It doesn’t matter who or what you are; we all want to share a lasting connection with someone else. How we get there, though, is the stuff that gets turned into great stories and great films. Keep the Lights On tries to be one of those stories, yet is based on an unstable foundation at its very start. When love and trust are based upon flimsy beginnings, what’s the point in the rest of it if all it provides you with is heartbreak?
The first scene in the film starts with our main protagonist, Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt) as he uses a roulette-style phone sex line to fish for guys, eventually finding one named Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth) who happens to live nearby. After their first physical encounter later that night, it’s revealed that Paul has a girlfriend and that this dalliance was just for fun, on the down-low. Through repeated similar meetings, the two develop a relationship which soon blossoms into love, with Paul eventually coming out properly (which we don’t see), ditching his girlfriend, and moving in with Erik. Yet, as with most any relationship, cracks start to appear in the once-beautiful façade of love, which then lead to deeper-seated problems and drama. We all know it’s going to end badly, as their relationship began on shaky grounds right away. What possible good could come out of a relationship that starts by one half of the duo sticking the other in a closet?
As a film, Keep the Lights On carries with it a documentary-type feel; handheld cameras, no crane shots or anything higher than eye level. The camera firmly entrenches us in Erik’s world, as the story is told entirely from his point of view; Thure Lindhardt carries this film on his shoulders and turns in an excellent performance as an ersatz Job, if you will. Zachary Brooks is devilishly wonderful as the flighty Paul, the man you love to hate in this film. Other characters float in and out of the proceedings, if only to be a sounding board for Erik; none are of any significant importance, as the focus must remain on Erik and Paul. One character Paolo (Erik’s ex-boyfriend) is only mentioned, yet never seen; there is no reason why this character should be given any weight except to give Erik some kind of weird driving force to distance himself from him. Is it the spectre of HIV that this unseen character represents? Possibly. Yet, like with most things in this movie, he keeps getting repeated and repeated until you start wondering why they’re even mentioned in the first place.
While I applaud Keep The Lights On for showing how far one will stick his neck out for love, I cannot in good faith recommend it, mostly because it portrays gay life as an extremely subversive subculture. In co-writer/director Ira Sachs’ world, all gays freebase crack and have unbridled, hedonistic sex with anything that walks. True, he’s trying to speak of commitment and Erik’s passionate belief that Paul can be a good partner, but is Erik that much of a glutton for punishment? This well-intentioned artist has to witness the physical and mental decline of his partner through drugs, alcohol, and meaningless sex, and he still chooses to stand by him to the point of his own degradation, especially during one scene in a hotel. There’s another scene where a very frustrated Erik starts hitting himself in the head with a metal pan; to me, that seemed to be a metaphor for my personal anger in watching him take these unnecessary punches. Yes, it’s a work of fiction, and it’s trying to tell a different story – that of a man having to deal with a drug-addicted lover. With both parties being of dubious morals, however, it’s not any wonder that you’ll walk out of the theater feeling empty and abused afterward.