King Cobra (2016, dir. Justin Kelly)
Sean Lockhart wants to make it in the movies. He intends to become a director and helm great films. He’s taking a rather unorthodox path by first changing his name to Brent Corrigan and then moving in with a man named Stephen. Stephen runs King Cobra, a gay pornography website and Brent is becoming his biggest star. Simultaneously, we’re introduced to Joe and Harlow, a pair of male escorts in a committed relationship. Joe never hesitates to indulge Harlow and provide him with every extravagance. Harlow carries the trauma of abuse from his stepfather, and this had caused Joe to become almost psychotically protective of him. These two pairs of men are on a trajectory towards each other. The events of this story will end in betrayal and murder. This is the story of King Cobra.
The film is based on real events, though director Kelly has taken a lot of liberty with the facts. The real life Sean Lockhart has expressed much disdain over the way the film portrays queer culture. Via Twitter he stated, “I gave them permission to use my name but explicitly made it clear that their story was heinous & not sanctioned. They told me they couldn’t change their screenplay after we entered negotiations.” Director Justin Kelly is a gay man himself and has stated that his interest in the film came from a more true crime angle that happened to feature representation of “different kinds of gay characters.” I find that both men have some very solid ideas and interpretations of the final product. There are some incredibly strong moments, but flaws are still present that degrade what could be a fascinating film.
The two most solid performances, in my opinion, are Christian Slater as Stephen and Keegan Allen of Harlow. Slater walks a very fine line with Stephen as both a lecherous older man getting off on young guys and a very isolated gay man from an older generation who didn’t have a support network for coming out. He is still publicly closeted and tells Brent a painful story about his first experience with another man and how his friends ostracized him after finding out. The film doesn’t come down black or white on the issue of Stephen exploiting Brent, we are left to decide what their relationship was.
When you first glimpse Keegan Allen, you’ll likely think of Joaquin Phoenix, and there is a strong physical resemblance. Another resemblance is that Allen is arguably the strongest actor in this picture. The character of Harlow has many layers and Allen makes interesting choices about how to play him. There is genuine love from Harlow to Joe and a desire to be monogamous with him. Joe, knowing that their finances are crippling them and keeping this from his partner, forces Harlow to continue meeting with clients. My hope is that we continue to see Keegan Allen in films because I get the sense there are some great performances there.
The most glaring problem with King Cobra seems to be a glaring issue in a lot of films: James Franco. Franco produced this film and chose to play Joe, the manic abusive lover of Harlow. I can’t say I understand a single choice Franco makes when it comes to playing this character but everything he does seems to pull the viewer out of the film. You’ll have a scene that is setting a muted, layered tone and then Franco comes on the screen and it devolves into dark comedy. He plays a complete caricature. The film has a lot of gratuitous simulated gay sex and the sex that appears as part of the porn productions is expectedly smutty but makes sense. Franco’s most explicit sex scene is such a joke I can’t imagine audiences not howling in laughter at his horrible performance.
King Cobra is a true crime film that plays with the idea of being a moody, independent film but falls into but ends up becoming borderline exploitative. There are some interesting performances, but they aren’t given the support needed to become great. There was the opportunity to explore some intriguing themes: the generation gap in the gay community, the American culture’s obsession with appearing wealthy. But every time one of these themes emerges it is just as quickly dropped.