At first, L.I.E. seems like a less hyper version of Larry Clark's Kids (1995) -- the suburban version -- with its polymorphically perverse young boys idling through an essentially adultless world.
Its protagonist, Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano), is a gifted underachiever, stunned by the recent death of his mother and wounded by his father's seeming indifference. One of his friends is sleeping with his own sister (or so he says), while another, Gary (Billy Kay), is peddling his ass at a local park. Howie doesn't know about Gary's sexual activity and looks up to him as an assured and dangerously attractive guy. It's a grimly familiar milieu, this arid and deracinated limbo with its prematurely beaten kids drowning in an excess of pointlessness.
But things take an unexpected turn when Howie becomes involved with an unlikely father figure, an ex-Marine and government spy (or so he says) and covert pedophile named Big John (Brian Cox). Big John seems like a nice guy who just happens to be seriously bent, who can keep a cap on his toxic inner life while passing himself off as a solid citizen. Cox, who has played both Hermann Goering and the original Hannibal Lecter (in Manhunter, 1986), has become expert at playing monsters who themselves seem haunted -- and with his sensual twist of a mouth and his rueful eyes he can convey both potential cruelty and lingering remorse in equal measure. He's a big man who seems to be harboring an unhealthily effete spirit and, against our better judgment, we sympathize. (Presumably this is why the film has an NC-17 rating, since all its sexual material is implied in an acceptable "R" manner. It's probably the first film to get such a rating on the grounds of moral ambivalence.)
L.I.E. (an abbreviation for Long Island Expressway) has some miscalculations, including a few thudding attempts at humor -- and neither of its two endings, one neat and melodramatic, the other open-ended and improbably optimistic, quite work. But it seems brave, in its restrained fashion, and when Cox is on-screen you feel it's getting close to some uncomfortable truth. It's a brilliant performance and it lifts the movie out of its neo-realistic depression into a whole different realm, one where the heart has its secret reasons and nothing can be satisfactorily explained.