Monsters and Saints

Identity politics becomes a nightmarish game of cat-and-mouse in director Julius Onah’s Luce

Naomi Watts and Tim Roth might want to call it quits. The last time those two talented actors played a married couple on screen, in Michael Haneke’s 2007 masterpiece Funny Games, their upper-class bliss was shattered when a pair of sociopathic twits invaded their palatial summer home and proceeded to torment and torture them with such brutality that waterboarding would have proved a respite.

This time around, in director Julius Onah’s Luce, Roth and Watts yet again play a fabulously attractive, likeable and well-to-do married couple, Amy and Peter, who are raising a black teenage son they adopted as a child from an unnamed war-torn country.

The portrait of valedictory success (a friend jokes that he is the school’s “Obama”) and the pride of his good liberal parents, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) one day turns in an assignment written in the voice of pan-African revolutionary Franz Fanon. Luce so convincingly channels Fanon’s advocacy of anti-colonial violence that his teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), suspects a subtle threat.

Ms. Wilson searches Luce’s locker, finds contraband and then contacts his parents, setting in motion a chain of accusations, denials, reprisals and suspicions that ends in a Chinese puzzle of lies and bad faith, with no one the better off for all their furious, often misguided pursuit of truth and justice.

Based on J.C. Lee’s play of the same name, Luce is essentially a psychological chamber piece for four actors, and it follows in the tradition of playwright David Mamet, who perfected a certain kind of dramatic thriller: bloodless tragedies that depict our little secrets and white lies as a hellish trap, a compound error driven by fear and desire that chisels everyone’s integrity to nothing.

Luce, then, is a cautionary tale, a moral parable that confronts the viewer with a series of testimonies, assertions and half-truths that challenge you to believe or disbelieve each successive claim, each twist in the narrative knot. The film serves up an abundance of timely issues — racial identity, sexual assault, virtue signaling, liberal guilt, political correctness — and submerges its characters in a morass of ideological confusion, until “wokeness” itself begins to look like the opposite of enlightenment.

Didactic by nature and a bit top-heavy, the film nonetheless works, thanks in large part to the excellent cast, but also by virtue of its swift, smart writing, which balances the necessary artifice of its plot with the frazzled humanity of its characters, each of whom is by turns highly suspect and entirely understandable. It would be easy to get lost in the whodunit — Is Luce lying? Is the teacher paranoid? Is mom Lady Macbeth? Is dad bushwhacked and trapped? — but that would be to lose the real focus, which is an entire culture and society on the skids.

If, like me, you believe that identity politics is the nightmare from which we will never awaken, then Luce looks a lot like a modern-day Dante’s Inferno — a dead-end of inert boxes we try to squeeze ourselves and each other into, planting our flags in the fallow ground of bankrupt ideas. In a sense, it’s a timeless tale, updated for the age of derangement we’re suffering. As our outsides clash in a game of existential and social pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, our insides die for lack of oxygen. Bangs and whimpers.

At one point, confronting his mother, Luce pleads that, in everyone else’s eyes, he can only be a monster or a saint, nothing in between, and never his true self — he must be either “black black” or Obama black. For a moment, you can see the pain in his eyes, which otherwise betray nothing throughout the movie but polite accommodation undercut by a sly, perhaps devious awareness that the whole game is full of shit. 

The final, terrifying scene — of Luce jogging alone — reveals the real cost of this game. (Broadway Metro)