TIFF Review: Closet Monster (Stephen Dunn)

As a cinephile, there is an all-too-rare pleasure in feeling like one is discovering a major talent. I’m convinced that not only does Closet Monster represent the discovery of TIFF, but the definitive find of 2015. Proving that Newfoundland is but a hop and a skip from Québec, and a jump from Ontario, Stephen Dunn’s directorial debut draws from some of the trademarks of fellow Canadian auteurs. With visual cues that suggest the imageries of David Cronenberg, and montage that projects the bombastic kinetic energies of Xavier Dolan, Dunn nevertheless finds and raises his own fresh, exciting voice, in a beautifully gruesome exploration of self-hatred and the bitter road to its resolution.

Internalized homophobia is all but a compulsory cornerstone in any young homosexual’s coming of age. This makes it difficult enough to accept their own non-conforming sexual identity, and when family and local culture exacerbates this, it’s all but monumentally impossible to come to terms with. When eight-year-old Oscar Madly goes to school one day, a couple of girls ask him, “Oscar, what’s that on your nails?” Extending his fingers as he examines his nails, he hears the girls giggle. “Most boys check their nails in a claw shape. You’ll probably grow up to be gay.” With that on his mind, walking through a cemetery on his way home, Oscar watches in terror as a gang of men force a steel rod up a man’s anus. “Why would they do that to him?” he asks his father as they catch the story on the evening news. “He was gay,” his father replies, disapprovingly.

By his final year of high school, Oscar (a tantalizingly haunting Connor Jessup) has discovered a passion for monster makeup. He prepares a portfolio as part of an application to a school in New York, using his best friend Gemma as his muse, and with the continual emotional support of his talking pet hamster Buffy (hilariously voiced by legend Isabella Rossellini). Already planning for them to move away together, Gemma tries to take their friendship a step further, and leans in for a kiss. It’s a confusing moment for Oscar, and it won’t be the last.

Hired at a home improvement store, at the end of his shift Oscar meets Wilder (Aliocha Schneider, a dead ringer for his equally sensual older brother Niels), a Québécois-accented, curly-haired Adonis. Having forgotten his shirt, Wilder asks Oscar if he can borrow his. Darting his eyes from Wilder’s lean-muscled, tattooed body, Oscar obliges. While sitting in a car with Gemma, after Wilder returns Oscar’s shirt, Gemma comments on the way that Wilder looked at him. In a bathroom at work, with his nose buried in the shirt, Oscar takes in Wilder’s lingering scent, as he physically explores what this carnally enticing figure awakens in him. Looking down in horror, he sees a steel rod occupying the space where his penis should be. His associations with the suppressed, disturbing memory of the crime he witnessed in his childhood aim to haunt him in full force.

Between receiving a letter of rejection from the program he applied to, and a thinly-veiled ultimatum for him to quit his tedious job, it’s an understatement to say that Oscar has had a bad day. Wilder, who has been legitimately fired, suggests that Oscar come to a party he will throw that evening. It’s monster-themed: it should be up his alley; he just needs a great costume. Raiding the wardrobe of his mother, who left the family in his childhood, and settling on a fur hat and studded vest, Oscar is stopped by his father. “They’re not yours,” he growls, “and you’re not going to this party.” Deciding that he is no longer going to submit to his father’s continual efforts to actively trap him, Oscar kicks him into the closet, and bolts from home.

At the party, Oscar longs to spend time with Wilder, the increasingly craved object of his obsession. Triggered by the memory of his nail-examining gay test, Oscar tells Wilder, “You have something on your nails.” His heart drops as Wilder’s hand assumes the tell-tale claw that suggests he is likely straight. When he is approached by Andrew, a young man in pursuit of a sexual encounter, Oscar looks over to Wilder and says, “I came here with someone.” Following his eye-line, and seeing Wilder making out with a pretty girl, Andrew tells Oscar, “I don’t think he’ll mind.” In a flurry of editing and music worthy of Dolan, they dance, and moments later, they end up in a bathroom. As Oscar is high, the following image of Andrew penetrating Oscar questions the conditions in which a sexual encounter is legitimately consensual, or if it is actually rape. Congruent with the imagery of the steel rod, upon the climax of their encounter, Oscar throws up steel bolts.

Having passed out, Oscar is wakened by Wilder, who reveals that the party has been busted and they need to split. After the conflict with his father, and not wanting to take him back to his room, Oscar brings Wilder to his tree house. Once they’ve ripped off their shirts and are lying in bed next to each other, Wilder leans over Oscar’s bare torso. Oscar blurts, “Please don’t kiss me. I just had a really bad day, and my mouth tastes like vomit, and I don’t want that to ruin this moment.” A little amused, and not appearing to feel uncomfortable, Wilder smirks. “I was just leaning over to get a bottle of water. So, how long have you been out?” Devastated with embarrassment, Oscar confesses that he has never kissed a boy, even though he has… had an encounter. Fortunately, he is bound for an experience more gratifying than his first, when Wilder offers, “We can kiss, and see if you feel anything.” Spouting water into his mouth as he leans in for the kiss, the chemistry in the unlikely pairing of Wilder’s gritty bad boy with Oscar’s baby Abercrombie-model realness, sizzles to the point that it sears. Wilder asks him, “So, did you feel anything?” A parallel metaphor of waves crashing into rocks says it all.

The next morning Oscar wakes up to find that Wilder is no longer by his side, and a note tells him, “Had to run; good luck in New York.” Returning to his room, Oscar discovers that it has been trashed, and Buffy is nowhere to be found. Out in the driveway, about to be picked up by his mother, Oscar sees his possessions strewn about with the body of a lifeless Buffy in their midst. As his mother chastises his father for killing the hamster, in a beat reminiscent of Cronenberg, Oscar pulls a steel rod out of his chest: it’s imagery that reveals how Oscar is beginning to conquer any self-hating proclivities. With the rod in his hand, as he charges toward his father, the blasting, staccato punctuation of the moment’s metallic electronica scoring comes to a screeching explosion, then dead silence, as Oscar slashes not into his father, but a nearby inanimate object. It’s a moment where, though it shouldn’t be expected to be mature, his reaction is delectably perverse, though rapturously understood, visceral and cathartic.

With a blasting, staccato punctuation of scenarios that simultaneously complement and defy magic realism, Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster is both elegantly realized and emotionally pulverizing. That Dunn’s green, though seemingly seasoned, insights are capable of exciting such violent yet relatable sensations suggests that not only Canadian, but world cinema has a new breathtaking talent to look out for.