Movies don’t get much juicier, funnier, creepier, sadder, or smarter than writer-director Justin Kelly‘s “King Cobra,” which dramatizes a real-life murder case set in the world of gay porn. Kelly’s work is outstanding, as he manages to control the most seemingly uncontrollable material while exploring many different facets of the case. “King Cobra” is as in-your-face explicit a gay movie as has ever been made with recognizable male actors, including producer James Franco, who predictably takes the lion’s share of the most physical sex scenes, and Christian Slater.
Kelly (“I Am Michael”) sets up two separate stories and cuts back and forth between them until they finally collide, with tragic results. We see young Sean Lockhart (Garrett Clayton, “The Fosters”) meet up with cultured, melancholy gay porn film producer Stephen (Slater), who immediately asks Lockhart, “Do you like Chopin?”
Kelly frames Lockhart at a distance in mirrors and door frames throughout “King Cobra,” which gets across how he is the object of desire both to Stephen and to himself. (Take note of the pitiful little crooked lamp shade next to Lockhart in one early shot where he is sprawled on a bed.) Stephen gives Lockhart the stage name Brent Corrigan and tells him, “It’s fun to play with who you are, don’t you think?”
Corrigan rises to fame online, which is shown to us in a sexily discreet montage that leaves a lot to the imagination; among those taking notice are Joe (Franco) and his younger lover Harlow (Keegan Allen, “Pretty Little Liars”), who are doing their own lower-rent porn movies. Franco and Allen kiss and grope each other on screen with intense abandon in their sex scenes, and this intensity is both erotic and also an uneasy signal that their characters are too close to the emotional edge.
In the sequence where Brent turns the camera on Stephen and the older man admits to a lonely and repressed adolescence, Slater hits just the right pitiful note as he says, “Please just make me feel wanted” before coercing Brent into having sex with him. The sex here is emotionally charged and revealing because Stephen can’t see (or doesn’t want to see) how uncomfortable Brent is with this exchange, but the camera does capture what Brent is feeling, resulting in a rare sex scene that expresses what’s going on with the characters better than any dialogue could.
Kelly has lots of fun staging some bad porn acting in the Corrigan movies, but then he smoothly switches gears when Harlow gets upset and needs to stop a scene that Joe is shooting. We learn that Harlow was molested by his stepfather, and as Joe comforts him, Franco and Allen hit a very uncomfortable level of co-dependent emotion. Dread about what might happen next starts to steadily build as Corrigan tries to break away from Stephen, who has trademarked his stage name and has him under contract.
When Corrigan takes a business meeting with Joe and Harlow in a Japanese restaurant, Kelly wisely lets their initial talk play out in a long take where the camera steadily inches closer to them, an effective stylistic change that lets us know something is about to give or break. The scene where Harlow auditions for Stephen, which leads up to the killing, is very disturbing because Allen goes much farther with the physical and verbal sexual come-ons than you would expect in a mainstream movie.
Once we’re off-balance, Kelly films the stabbing death of Stephen in a super-controlled way that separates both characters into totally separate filmic spaces, a near-Hitchcockian montage where we never see the knife enter Stephen’s body but just hear its impact. Hitchcock famously advised to shoot a scene of love like a scene of murder and to shoot a scene of murder like a scene of love, and Kelly exactly catches that scary exchange and balance here.
It is made clear in the scenes that Brent shares with his flaky, loving mother (Alicia Silverstone) that he likes having sex on camera and only dislikes the exploitative situation that he is in with Stephen. In the sexy and amusing final scene, after a movie-long tease, Kelly finally lets Corrigan show us his most noted asset– complete with star tattoo–and this is so funny and suggestive because Clayton manages to look a lot like Corrigan but he also uncannily resembles his fellow Disney Channel alum Zac Efron in look and manner.
The surprising thing about “King Cobra” is that it winds up being a sex-positive movie that’s sympathetic to Corrigan while also poking some gentle, loving fun at him and committed to fully exploring the sadder fates of the three other men who came to their doom in his sunny presence.