“Oliver Twist” has been much adapted and even successfully musicalized, so there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t also serve as a template for a gritty, contemporary story about young gay hustlers controlled by a brutal pimp. That’s the conceit of this modest little picture written and directed by Jacob Tierney, who’s probably best known as an actor for his lead turn in Terence Davies’ “The Neon Bible.” The result isn’t without interest, but overall it’s more an earnest attempt than a successful accomplishment.
“Twist,” as Tierney too cutely titles his film both to indicate the source and to suggest the major changes he’s made in it, shifts the narrative spotlight to the character of the Artful Dodger, a secondary figure in Dickens but here the real protagonist. He’s now Dodge (Nick Stahl), a sad, drug-addicted fellow in the stable of Fagin (Gary Farmer), the alternately avuncular and cruel keeper of a kind of run-down dorm for male prostitutes controlled by the brutal (and always unseen) Bill. It’s Dodge who recruits new blood for the operation as well as turning tricks in a seedy section of Toronto, and one night he picks up Oliver (Joshua Close), a porcelain blond fellow who’s run away from his latest foster family, and becomes his mentor in the trade. The only person who really seems to care for them, and their cohorts, is Nancy (Michele-Barbara Pelletier), a petite waitress at the Three Cripples Diner, a dive that serves as a sort of base for the operation; she also lives with Bill. The picture takes two main narrative tracks. One concerns Oliver’s gradual initiation into the business and his connection with a strange customer called The Senator (Stephen McHattie), a reasonably well-to-do fellow who may provide a way out of the street life for him (though Nancy’s assistance to him in contacting the man has tragic consequences for her). The second, more important plot thread involves Dodge’s back story: who’s behind the wheel of that mysterious car that’s following him around, and why does he go to such lengths to avoid it? The answer points to the unhappy past that drove Dodge from his family in Montreal and onto the streets, and ultimately leads to even greater depths of despair.
Dickens’ novel, of course, dealt with fringe-dwelling boys much younger than the hustlers depicted here, and the life in which they were inducted was one of petty theft rather than sex-for-cash. It was also considerably more hopeful than the deeply gloomy scenario Tierney creates for all his characters; a thoroughly modern pessimist, he obviously has no tack with Victorian conventions of happy coincidence. As a result “Twist” is pretty much an endless dirge of pain and humiliation. That doesn’t mean it’s without virtues. Aided by his crew (cinematographer Gerald Packer, production designer Ethan Tobman and costumer Joanna Syrokomia), Tierney fashions a convincing skid row atmosphere; unfortunately, he proves less adept at varying tempo to energize the narrative. That leaves most of the burden upon the actors, and Stahl responds with a deeply felt turn that’s compromised by the fact that the script doesn’t really invest Dodge with much light or shade: the character suffers so much and so relentlessly that he becomes a sort of male Camille. Nonetheless, Stahl shines beside Close, who looks as though he might have stepped out of Dickens rather than Tierney’s script and is too wooden and halting to really connect with the audience; his best scene is probably the very last, which links up with Stahl’s first appearance in a fashion that’s too literary but gives Oliver a new, more convincing appearance. Pelletier is touching as the doomed Nancy, and Farmer invests Fagin with some welcome complexity.
“Twist” is an uneven film, and its downbeat tone will probably turn many viewers off. But it’s interesting enough to be worth searching out, especially when it reaches DVD–which shouldn’t be long.