There is no questioning the literary genius of Charles Dickens. From A Christmas Carol to Oliver Twist and everything in between, the man was responsible for a number of literary classics. His stories have been told time and time again on both the big and small screens and on stages throughout North America and all over the world. One of his most famous stories is that of Oliver Twist, a young orphan who's abandoned by his parents at an orphanage, which he then escapes from, befriending a pick-pocket by the name of the Artful Dodger and beginning a life of crime on the street. That source material has been done numerous times before, perhaps none more famous than the 1968 musical Oliver! with singing and dancing and songs such as "Where is Love" and "Food, Glorious Food". Now in 2004, the story has been respun, reimagined, and retold in the bleak Toronto winter with the lead character shifting from Oliver to the Artful Dodger (now known as Dodge) and the world of pick pockets changed to the world of male prostitution.
Dodge (played by In the Bedroom's Nick Stahl) is a hustler. He works as part of Fagan (Gary Farmer)'s group of street hustlers who have sex with male johns for money. He's addicted to heroin which he and the other boys get from Bill Sykes, the local gangster and Fagan's boss. He coasts from day to day and is friends with Nancy (Michelle-Barbara Pelleiter), a waitress at the local diner and Bill's girlfriend. Nancy is also responsible for making sure the boys are on the street turning tricks and earning their keep for her boyfriend. As the proverbial leader of the boys and the one everyone looks up to, Dodge is also tasked with recruiting new talent to the group. One night, an opportunity presents itself when he meets young Oliver (Joshua Close), a gorgeous young blonde boy who appears to have run away from home just like himself. Oliver falls into place quite well and fits into the group with relative ease until the Senator (Stephen McHattie), a regular john, takes a liking to him and offers him a chance to get away from his newfound life of drugs and street hustling. Add into this a mysterious car with a Quebec license plate that continues to follow Dodge around and you have the makings of a tragedy in Jacob Tierney's Twist.
Twist comes from first time writer/director Jacob Tierney. Tierney, who has some moderate experience as an actor in Canadian films, has created a dark, gritty, and grim version of the Dickens classic. Given the subject matter of male prostitution and drugs, there was no questioning that this would not be a light and breezy affair. The problem is that the film is perpetually dark and disturbing, with many images causing this reviewer to look away. Also problematic is that the film plays at a very slow pace, with the 90-odd-minute running time seemingly taking hours to complete. Once Oliver and Dodge meet, nothing occurs until just before the end, and even then the events are very confusing given the tone and structure of the film. This left many who attended the screening with questions as to just what happened in the film's final 20 minutes.
I like to think of myself as open to movies that cover all subject matter, and there is really nothing that I consider taboo. I'm not religious so my view points are not tainted by the teaching of any organization or group. I look at movies from a very open perspective and evaluate the content that way. To be honest, I'm very rarely shocked or disgusted in what I see occurring on screen. However, there were moments in Twist where I had to look away and my stomach felt uneasy. It's such a bleak motion picture and the subject matter is just so unappealing. I was looking forward to seeing the movie when I received the press materials, but somewhere between the page and the screen things changed, because the film was just too dark and grim for me. Keep in mind this is coming from someone who prefers things to be dark and maybe a tad off the beaten path that is most mainstream cinema.
I wanted to really like Twist and I even did the unthinkable and sat through it twice before forging my final opinion and writing this review. One of the reasons for this was the performance of Nick Stahl in the lead role of Dodge. Stahl has proven himself in films like In the Bedroom and Bully, and does go to emotional depths as Dodge. Equally impressive is newcomer Joshua Close as the blonde, innocent, and naive Oliver, who is taken over to the dark side by Stahl's Dodge. The film only has two female roles, but Michelle-Barbara Pellieter's Nancy is multi-layered, giving hope and becoming a mother-type figure to Fagen's boys. Gary Farmer's Fagen is interesting in that he can be a total tyrant one minute and a loving father the next. This is obviously a product of Bill's management skills.
One last thing I'd like to address is that in reading the film's press notes, there is some material described in depth as occurring in the film that is really only hinted at. For example, the press notes make mention that there might be a deeper connection between the Senator and Oliver. Even in seeing the film twice, I didn't see this occurring the way it says in the press materials. I'm not saying it's not there entirely, because it is hinted at, but it appears to be on a much deeper and less obvious level.
Twist is an interesting motion picture. It had the potential to be really good with its strong performances and intriguingly different take on the Dickens classic. However, the slow pacing, dark subject matter, and overall unsettling tone don't work for the film as well as they should. I would have liked to have seen more character development, better dialogue, and perhaps a more realized story. In the right hands this could have been a much better picture. It's an ambitious first project for Tierney that shows promise as a young director, but is just too dark to hit the mark perfectly.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.